Thoughts on the REBIRTH OF MOTHRA trilogy (spoilers)
Now we finally come to the one major piece of Toho’s kaiju multiverse that I haven’t already covered, the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy from 1996-98. This was just a couple of years after Toho had concluded the Heisei Godzilla series in order to cede to what they expected to be a trilogy of American Godzilla films from TriStar — although that didn’t turn out too well. So I imagine they decided to shift their focus to their second main kaiju star, Mothra. While the Rebirth trilogy (its English title — the first was just called Mosura in Japan) came out during the Heisei era of the Japanese calendar, it isn’t in continuity with the Heisei Godzilla series featuring Miki Saegusa and G-Force, and it uses a different version of the Mythra mothos, err, Mothra mythos, than the one in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth. This is a separate universe for a film trilogy that’s geared toward a younger audience than the Heisei or Millennium Godzilla films.
The trilogy, written by Masumi Suetani and directed by Okihiro Yoneda (films I & III) and Kunio Miyoshi (film II), centers on the Elias (Eriasu), this continuity’s equivalents of the Shobijin/Cosmos, the pair of tiny, singing women who are Mothra’s heralds in the other films — but now they’re the lead characters, there are three of them, and they have more individualized personalities. The two heroines are Moll, or Moru (Megumi Kobayashi), the calmer, wiser older sibling (called Mona in the English dub), and Lora (Sakaya Yamaguchi), the more emotional younger one. The third is Belvera, or Berubera (Aki Hano), the recurring villain of the series, who rides around on a miniature robot dragon called Garu Garu and recruits various evil kaiju to destroy the human race. Moll and Lora have their own flying mount, a kitten-sized miniature Mothra called Fairy. (The first Fairy Mothra appeared in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla a few years earlier, though I’ve blocked that awful film from my memory.)
The first film involves Belvera’s attempt to free Desghidorah (or Death-Ghidorah), a life-force-sucking alien monster that sterilized Mars and tried to do the same to Earth before the Mothra race and their Elias allies were able to entrap it. Belvera wants to free Desghidorah and destroy the world, basically just for evil’s sake. But the movie takes a while to get around to explaining this, instead focusing on the dysfunctional Goto family, whose father happens to unearth the small metal seal that keeps Desghidorah contained and takes it home as a gift for his daughter, leading to an interminable aerial fight between the good Elias sisters on Fairy and Belvera on Garu Garu. It’s an interesting twist to take a kaiju battle to a tiny scale instead of a huge one, but since the premise, characters, and stakes haven’t been explained to the audience yet, it’s kind of tedious.
Eventually Belvera gets away with the seal and frees Desghidorah, who’s a King Ghidorah variant with four legs and a burlier design more suggestive of a European-style dragon, though still with three heads. Conveniently for this kid-friendly film, Desghidorah has no interest in preying on human life force, preferring to target the much longer-lived trees and thus serve as an allegory for the film’s clumsy environmentalist message.
The Elias summon Mothra with a modernized, music-video style version of the original Mothra awakening song — the musical style has a ’70s sound to me, but the visuals are very ’90s music video with the singers bluescreened over flames and whatnot. This version of Mothra is even more plush and fuzzy than prior versions. She’s also elderly and weakened after laying her egg, so she’s badly hurt in the fight, provoking her infant, known in English as Larva Leo, to hatch prematurely and come to her aid (and somehow the Elias are able to watch this even though they’re hundreds of miles away). It’s odd to see Mothra and her larva fighting side by side; in Mothra vs. Godzilla, the new Mothra larvae were born shortly after the mature Mothra died, suggesting the mythological trope of the dying and reincarnating god. I think the larvae in Tokyo S.O.S. were born before Mothra died, but didn’t actually fight alongside her. Here, Larva Leo takes quite a pounding but manages to drive Desghidorah away, and the good Elias recapture the seal from Belvera, while the Gotos deal with the destruction around them. But the old Mothra soon gives up the ghost and sinks into the sea.
Desghy goes on an offscreen rampage that drains the life from the forest of Hokkaido and makes it hard for the hospitalized survivors to breathe (huh? It’s not like people can’t breathe in a desert or something). There’s an odd misstep in the film’s environmental message here, since there’s an environmentalist protestor/journalist who’s been condemning Goto’s logging business, and here he comes off as a malicious lunatic who attacks Goto, blaming him for the whole mess. But eventually the kids leave their injured parents behind and run off to help Larva Leo, who cocoons herself (himself in the English dub) next to a really really old tree in a nature preserve and draws on its energy to metamorphose (and how is this different from Desghidorah’s parasitism, exactly?). She hatches into a bunch of little animated moths that combine into a fiercer-looking (but still plush) Mothra Leo (actually Shin Mosura, “New Mothra”), who takes on the now-winged Desghidorah in a very one-sided battle, since Leo unleashes about a dozen different attacks and Desghy doesn’t have a chance. Once Leo uses the seal to entomb Desghy again, Goto has a weird speech about how “we” destroyed the forest in minutes, even though it was the monster that did it, and how maybe, with hard work, we can reclaim the environment and build a better world for our grandkids. Which is immediately rendered moot when Leo takes the kids for a ride on its head and sprinkles fairy dust over the landscape to make it all magically bloom again. Who needs environmental responsibility when you have kaiju fairy dust? Oh, and Moll and Lora let Belvera get away because, oh, didn’t we mention she’s our big sister and we love her? Plus we need her back for the sequels.
I’d gathered this trilogy had a good reputation, but this was kind of a mess. Decent effects, and the actresses playing Moll and Lora were better than their dull predecessors in The Battle for Earth. The music was pretty good too, more lush and expressive than the usual Godzilla score. But it was hard to care about the dysfunctional clan of human heroes, the fight scenes ran too long, and the plot was unfocused.
Rebirth of Mothra II, aka Mothra 2: The Great Undersea Battle, takes place in the islands of Okinawa as a series of strange incidents begin in the sea, involving hostile starfish creatures called Barem, which turn out to be the waste products of a kaiju named Dagahra (not to be confused with Dogora), basically an amphibious dragon with manta-ray wings. It was created by an Atlantis-like civilization called Nilai-Kanai, which intended it to consume ocean pollution, but their genetic engineering was flawed and the monster produced the Barem as a waste product. Dagahra has now been reawakened by modern sea pollution, and the Barem will consume all sea life and destroy the world if it isn’t stopped.
There’s also a small, benevolent creature called Ghogo, a pear-shaped ball of cream-colored fur with eyes, chicken feet, and a single antenna atop its head. Ghogo ends up in the hands of the film’s preteen heroine Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), who’s bothered by a couple of bullying boys that become her allies when Belvera attacks them to get Ghogo, who she says will lead her to a magic treasure that will let her take over the world (presumably by supernatural means rather than just, you know, becoming one of the one percent). So both factions compete to get to Nilai-Kanai, with Belvera recruiting a pair of bumbling treasure hunters as her allies, and when they find the sunken pyramid-city and Dagahra attacks, the Elias girls summon Mothra (this time without the cheesy music-video staging). Apparently New Mothra generally spends her time dissolved into hundreds of little Mothrae (like those that came out of her cocoon before) that only assemble into the Leo Mothrazord when summoned.
Dagahra takes a totally random detour to smash up the nearby city, but when Mothra arrives, their aerial fight is over the no-longer-sunken pyramid and a nearby forested island. Mothra Leo is not nearly as devastating as she was against Desghidorah, and the monster spins up a whirlpool that leaves Mothra helplessly encrusted in a toxic brown substance that it took me a while to realize was a coating of the Barem things. The pyramid’s defenses then drive off Dagahra, making Mothra seem kind of irrelevant to the whole affair.
Finally a holographic Nilai-Kanaian princess shows up, and we finally get some motivation for Belvera when she argues that she needs the treasure to save the Earth by wiping out the scourge of humanity, while her sisters argue that humans have the potential to save the world and that Dagahra is the real threat. The princess sides with them and reveals that the real treasure is Ghogo (big surprise) and that he must will his soul to the defeat of Dagahra — which has randomly mutated into a deadlier form with shoulder missiles. The kids and the treasure-hunting baddies save each other when Dagahra attacks again, and everyone’s redeemed and on the same side.
Ghogo’s final sacrifice is… ugh… Okay, look. I didn’t want to get into this, but there’s been a running gag of Ghogo magically healing people by, well, urinating on them. This culminates in a sequence that it’s very hard not to read as fetishistic, as Ghogo’s ultra-pure, healing “miracle water” (just animated sparkles, but still) rains down upon the delighted Elias girls and everyone else. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea in a kids’ movie? Annnnnnyway… Mothra is healed and transformed into a new, more colorful form called Rainbow Mothra, who magically parts the sea so the humans can run back to shore (I wonder if there’s some Mosura/Moses pun intended there), then transforms into Aqua Mothra, basically a moth/flying fish hybrid that splits into a bunch of little Aqua Mothras that have a CGI Death Star trench dogfight with the Barems inside Dagahra’s body, leaving it weakened and defeated. We end with an unsubtle metaphor where the princess’s voice tells the kids their generation has been entrusted with the fate of the world, and Ghogo has left Shiori a pearl that turns into the Earth for the final shot.
All in all, a forgettable sequel. The effects and music were okay, but the story didn’t have much going for it, and the climax was kind of icky. This one could probably be skipped altogether without impact.
Rebirth of Mothra III was originally titled Mothra III: King Ghidorah Attacks, so one guess who the monster is. Now Belvera is trying to steal three triangular jeweled pins connected to the “Elias Triangle” that protects the little ladies’ species, one each for Wisdom, Courage, and Love. Moll and Lora fight her, but she escapes with the Love pin. Lora finds that the Wisdom pin fits a triangular depression in her dagger and causes it to lengthen Thundercats-style into a sword (okay, that’s not sexually symbolic at all). But the Courage pin doesn’t fit Lora’s dagger, so it must be for Belvy’s, with Lora as Love.
Our human protagonist is a teenage boy named Shota, a budding chef whose indulgent parents are letting his skip school without knowing why, though their younger kids explain that all the students hate the healthy school lunches. It’s a weirdly moralistic conversation with the kids arguing that not letting kids eat junk food doesn’t let them be true to themselves. Anyway, Shota takes advantage of his abundant free time to investigate some meteorites that fell in Aoki forest, but Moll and Lora get there first and find residue that Fairy’s antenna sensor scan (yes, apparently) identifies as dinosaur juice, basically. So Lora deduces that whatever fell to Earth was the same thing that killed the dinosaurs 130 million years ago (twice the actual figure, but no worse than the “2 million years” estimate in the 1954 Gojira). Turns out that was King Ghidorah (with a conventional roar rather than his usual high, warbling cry), who’s now flying over the city and disintegrating children when it passes over them. Shota discovers that the children have been teleported to a big squishy-walled dome in the woods, some sort of larder where they’re stored for later consumption.
When Rainbow Mothra shows up to fight KG, he gets pretty well trashed. Lora’s “gentle heart” allows her to be hypnotized by KG’s gaze and she turns evil. Then Belvera gets snatched by some earthwormy tentacles from the dome (and again I’m having trouble believing that the implied sexual fetishism is accidental). Moll hooks up with Shota (who’s totally unfazed to see a tiny woman riding a large fuzzy moth) and takes him to Mothra, while Lora arrives inside the dome and swordfights with Belvera, snatching the Love pin to sword-ify her dagger. Somehow the power of Love doesn’t cure her of King G’s evil influence.
Anyway, Moll has to sacrifice the last of her life force (turning into a crude digital-effect representation of stone) to turn Mothra into a more streamlined Aqua Mothra known as Lightspeed Mothra, who travels back in time to defeat the younger King Ghidorah — which does not immediately reset the timeline, since this movie follows what TV Tropes calls San Dimas Time, where events in the past and present are somehow simultaneous, with past events only affecting the present after we see them occur in the narrative. “While” Mothra battles the smaller Cretaceous King G in a landscape populated with stiffly animated mechanical dinosaurs, Shota gets sucked into the larder dome (which turns out to be an outboard stomach that begins spewing acid) and uses Moll’s last words to reach the hearts of her sisters, whose powers combined
summon Captain Planet help Mothra win the day in the simultaneous past, causing King G to vanish in the present — until another King G emerges, grown from a bit of Cretaceous KG that was severed in the past. And the time-travel logic is just as nonsensical as in the previous KG movie, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but at least Belvera actually recognizes that it doesn’t make sense — which doesn’t actually help it make any more sense. Naturally Mothra returns (thanks to some Primitive Mothra larvae that cocooned her in the distant past) and gets two more ultra-gaudy transformations, Armor Mothra for the climactic takedown and Eternal Mothra at the end. Lora and Belvera use the Power of Three to bring Moll back to life, kind of like Charmed if Shannen Doherty were an evil witch bent on destroying humanity. (Although I think her co-stars might’ve believed that she was.) The sisters come to an understanding that they’ll never agree but that’s okay, and Shota has presumably gained enough courage to tackle the horrors of school lunches.
While this one has its silly aspects to be sure, it’s easily the best of the three, due to the drama among the Elias sisters. Shota is also a more effective child lead than his predecessors, a bit older and more thoughtful. The effects are pretty good except for the stiff wind-up dinosaurs in the past. I do wonder why they decided to do two movies with Ghidorah variants as the villains.
I know I’m not the target audience for these films, but overall I found them underwhelming. I believe that children deserve nothing less than the best we can offer them, so being made for kids is no excuse for a film to lack quality or intelligence. And in my opinion, these are just mediocre movies — not the worst that kaiju eiga has to offer, but well below the best. The first two Mothra films were among the finest of the Showa era, establishing Mothra as a figure second only to Godzilla in Toho’s pantheon. But few of Mothra’s later films came close. These are the only films since Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964 in which Mothra has been the top-billed lead kaiju (that film was called Godzilla vs. the Thing in the US, but it was really a Mothra sequel with Godzilla as the guest villain), but they don’t live up to the same standard. Their effects and music are pretty good, but they’re too dominated by gimmickry, by giving Mothra various power-up transformations that were probably meant to sell new toys. The choice to center the series on the miniature women for a change was interesting; it makes Moll, Lora, and Belvera the only non-kaiju characters to be regulars throughout an entire Toho kaiju continuity. But they didn’t really get much character development until the final film, and the human children and families they connected with were never all that effective or sympathetic — especially since the boy “heroes” in both the first two films were bullies who harassed the young girl leads. So ultimately, the whole thing fails to rise above mediocrity, and feels more like an exercise in commercialism than anything else.
So that pretty much does it for the Toho films I’ve been able to track down. I’ve completed all the major Toho kaiju series — Godzilla, Mothra, Frankenstein — and a fair sampling of their other films. All that’s left are a couple of minor kaiju films from Ishiro Honda, Daikaiju Baran (whose terrible American version, Varan the Unbelievable, I’ve seen but don’t consider worth commenting on in isolation) and Space Amoeba (aka Yog, the Monster from Space), as well as a couple of non-kaiju things like Atragon and Latitude Zero, plus a couple of later, related films that may not even be worth it, like Jun Fukuda’s stock footage-based The War in Space. Maybe someday I’ll manage to track down enough of those to get another post out of it, but for now, I’m all Tohoed out, at least until Godzilla: Resurgence hits these shores, hopefully later this year.
So what does a kaiju eiga reviewer do when he’s effectively run out of Toho monsters to cover? Well, there’s really only one other major Japanese giant-monster franchise left, isn’t there? That’s right, true believers — it’s time to tackle Gamera. Brace yourselves, because from here on it’s turtles all the way down…