Hollywood is Trying to do Mothra: Why That’s So Weird
I don’t know if you know this yet, but Mothra is going to be in the next Godzilla movie. Not a future Japanese Godzilla release, mind you, but the actual, American follow-up to 2014’s Legendary Pictures film Godzilla. Milly Bobby Brown, the Emmy Award-winning Kyle Chandler, and the Academy Award-nominated Vera Farmiga are going to appear on screen with Mothra. Do you know how weird that is?
Let me tell you how weird that is because even in a film universe featuring giant apes, dinosaurs that radioactive breath fire, and three-headed dragons, Mothra is a weird monster and it kind of blows my mind that Hollywood is attempting to use her.
Mothra Is The First Superhero Kaiju
We tend to associate Godzilla with being a good guy giant monster who saves the day from bad guy giant monsters, but in the full scope of Godzilla’s cinematic career, his time as a kaiju superhero represents an incomplete part. Mothra, on the other hand, has been purely heroic since day one, before Godzilla ever did it, and sticking with the role long after he reverted to a more animalistic force of nature in the 80’s and on. It all goes back to her first film, 1961’s Mothra.
Mothra takes a unique perspective on the kaiju genre, and in many ways could be considered a found poem, in movie form, based on the plot of 1933’s King Kong. All the basic building blocks are there; an undiscovered tropical island, superstitious natives who worship a giant monster, a western entertainment industry businessman looking for wonders to exploit, a rescue mission for kidnapped beaut(ies), and a giant monster rampaging through New York City (or technically New Kirk City, the New York stand in used in the film). What sets Mothra apart, however, is who the good guy is, and who the bad guy is, because it’s the businessman who kidnaps Mothra’s priestesses, taking them from their island to tour the modern world for profit, and Mothra’s epic rampage is actually a rescue mission to find and bring them back home. The movie makes little bones about it, Mothra is the victorious protagonist of the film, and by the end of it she’s killed the bad guy and rescued her girls.
The comparison to King Kong is interesting here because Kong was at this point the most humanized and sympathetic of all kaiju. Godzilla had appeared in two films, in both presented as a lumbering, dangerous animal that represented the destruction caused by the nuclear power used in war. Most other monsters who had appeared by this point were similar; frequently just enlarged versions of otherwise regular animals, following their natural instinct to eat (people) and sleep (in tiny people cities). Kong’s original appearance was still quite animalistic, but there was a certain human appeal in his plight; he liked Ann Darrow and just kind of wanted to keep her around. This was also helped by the fact that he was a primate, the animal kingdom’s closest about humans, while most other kaiju were typically much less humanoid creatures, like insects and dinosaurs. Mothra feels like the logical extension of what Kong represented; a giant monster with a human spirit and human goals, only this time she was granted a level of intelligence and cognizance that allowed her to be the protagonist actively, and she was given a plot that facilitated that.
Mothra would consistently be a heroine in all her future appearances. Her next major role was in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, where she is Japan’s savior against a returned Godzilla. She would appear in Ghidorah, Three Headed Monster wherein a weakened state she tried to fight King Ghidorah single-handedly in order to save the world; she would fight Ghidorah again in Destroy All Monsters. She fought to save Japan from Godzilla in two more films, 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle for Earth, and 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. In the 90’s, she even had her trilogy of films where she was the lead protagonist, saving the world from terrible kaiju threats.
All in all, this isn’t that weird for Hollywood; 2014’s Godzilla portrayed the big guy himself as a giant monster that served as a sort of natural guardian against super predators. The end of the film features crowds cheering as he makes his way back to the sea, having just saved San Fransisco and kind of the world. But Mothra is several steps beyond this; she’s not just an ecological balance, or some instinctive guardian, she’s a rationally thinking, moral creature. In another comparison to King Kong, she fought Godzilla just after the ape performed a similar role in 1963’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, though it’s worth noting that Kong had to be put in Godzilla’s way and then the fight happened naturally due to two giant monster seeing each other as threats, while Mothra was responding to a request to come and save Japan kindly. This is unique amongst most of the humanoid kaiju, let alone the kaiju who take drastically inhuman forms, like a giant winged insect. She has consistently been portrayed as having roughly human level intelligence, displaying an understanding of the threats she faces but choosing to fight on anyways for other people, with her reasoning being translated by her little fairy priestesses. Oh, did I forget to mention that they’re tiny little fairies? Yeah, that’s because…
Mothra is Flat Out Magic
This isn’t metaphor or hyperbole, Mothra is a magical, mystical, semi-religious entity within the world in which she lives. She’s worshiped by the inhabitants of Infant Island, which is nothing new considering King Kong is treated much the same way, but in this case, the magical nature the inhabitants believe in seems to be very much true. The first and foremost evidence of this is probably the identical twin, psychic fairies that communicate directly with her. Alternately referred to as the Shobijin, the Cosmos, or the Elias (I’ll just be using the original term, Shobijin), these aren’t just period-specific characters who stopped appearing after the crazy 60’s, they are an integral part of Mothra’s mythos, and have appeared alongside Mothra in all but two of the films she’s been in (one of the exceptions being Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack, where Mothra was actually a last minute replacement for a completely different monster in the script). When the Godzilla movies became more serious and vaguely realistic in the 80’s, the Shobijin remained the same, as did Mothra, whose role as a divine protector of the earth was only more emphasized.
It is worth noting that the original film Mothra did make some light stabs at rational explanations for the mystical nature of Mothra. The island tests positive for radiation near the beginning of the film (though the island’s religion surrounding Mothra appears to go back farther than the point where radiation could have explained the giant moth), and the psychic connection the Shobijin have with Mothra is scientifically measured and at one point even blocked (this ties into the widely believed legitimacy of ESP and other forms of parapsychology during this time period). But more than anything, these details feel like an attempt to tie the character a little closer to the science fiction world of Godzilla, and they are rather quickly forgotten in subsequent appearances of the character; in all other Godzilla films Mothra is treated, for all intents and purposes, as if she was a purely magical being.
I’m honestly not sure how Hollywood is going to try and play this. Major studios have long been afraid of combining science fiction with magic and fantasy, at least when put into a semi-recognizable, modern world. You’ll note this in particular in superhero genres, where even characters who are traditionally magical in nature are given more science friendly explanations that downplay the mysticism (think the Thor films writing off the Asgardians as advanced alien beings who are basically, but not literally, gods). Godzilla and the two MUTO creatures who appear in the first movie to kick off Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse are given specific scientific explanations, their size, and abilities being due to radiation combined with holdover creatures from ancient times. Considering that Mothra will be sharing the screen with Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah (not to mention whatever human characters end up hanging around), it would be easy for Legendary Pictures to simply explain her away with the standard “here’s an ancient animal that’s way bigger than what we’re used to now” and leave it at that.
That said, I’m not sure that option would fly. Keep in mind, Mothra is an extremely popular monster in Japan, and getting the rights to use her is costing the studio a good amount of money (at least at the time of production for earlier American Godzilla movies, the rights to use Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah were valued equally, and that cost is exactly why, in 1998, TriStar dropped their original idea of a Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah movie and went for a solo Godzilla film instead). If Legendary went to the trouble of paying out for Mothra, and if they want to satisfy foreign markets where Mothra is an established big star, they may want to throw themselves in a bit more wholesale than many other American films typically do. There’s also been a boost in recent American films willing to delve into both science and magic; the Marvel films recently introduced Doctor Strange and his brand of sorcery, and Warner Bros.’ DC films threw themselves into the deep end in Suicide Squad, featuring magical swords and ancient witches right alongside the tech and mutated humans of the rest of the movie. With this kind of encouragement, I’m hopeful the Shobijin will be involved with this film because if they aren’t it will just be an epic tragedy. And speaking of epic...
Mothra is The Strongest of Them All
Last but not least, there’s the fact that Mothra is arguably the strongest kaiju in the whole pantheon of Toho monsters. Godzilla is frequently referred to as the King of the Monsters, but despite his central starring role, there are multiple monsters that are considered at a higher level of power and strength. King Ghidorah immediately comes to mind, considering that in the entire original run, Ghidorah was never defeated without the combined efforts of at least two monsters. One of the other monsters distinctly at a higher level than Godzilla: Mothra. In the many clashes, these two have had, Mothra has won every single time.
This level of power comes with a bit of a caveat: Mothra is typically portrayed as having great offensive capabilities, like gust force winds, poison dust, and, somehow, excellent melee skills, but she also has next to no defense. A losing fight is almost always a fatal one, and her most powerful weapon, the clouds of dust expelled from her wings, is a last resort tactic, one that ensures her death as the price of victory. But just because one Mothra dies does not mean she’s out of the fight; the many deaths of Mothra coincide with the hatching of a new egg, with a caterpillar emerging to carry on the life cycle. This endless circle of life, death, and rebirth is by design, the hatching of a new larva at the death of the adult butterfly conjuring up comparisons to the legendary Phoenix or the reincarnation doctrine of Indian religions; suggesting immortality, resurrection, and divinity. Altogether, this makes Mothra extremely powerful and nigh unkillable; in a world full of dinosaurs and alien dragons and robots, it turns out that the strongest of them all is the pretty, pretty butterfly, an immortal powerhouse who will kick everyone’s ass.
And this is again something I am bewildered to imagine Hollywood doing. Of all the unexpected elements that make Mothra so bizarre, I think this is the one we’re least likely to see fully explored in the upcoming film, for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the only known appearance planned for this Mothra, at least at the moment. The film is the second in a planned Godzilla trilogy, the third being the eventual clash between the new King Kong of Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla himself. Without more appearances, it will be difficult to truly gauge Mothra’s immense power or demonstrate her recurring cycle of rebirth, which were elements that only became cemented after multiple appearances across the first two continuities. Secondly, the movie is titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and thus an emphasis on Godzilla’s power would seem to be at play here. Even if King Ghidorah is (rightly) positioned as a monster even stronger than Godzilla, it seems unlikely that Legendary Pictures would allow Godzilla to rank third place in a film whose title claims him as the best. I feel like the only way we’d see this Mothra made as powerful as traditional Mothra would be if she and Godzilla were to headline their fight, which is a moot point by now considering this Godzilla is pretty much purely a hero.
All in all, Mothra is a resoundingly strange monster, even by Japanese kaiju standards. She’s a benevolent, magical, all-powerful deity, filled with odd details and ironies that make me legitimately surprised that Hollywood is attempting to portray her, and hesitant to gets my hopes up that she’ll be done right. But these details have made her one of Japan’s most beloved kaiju for over 50 years now, and perhaps Legendary Pictures is willing to bet that lightning will strike a second time with American audiences who may be currently less aware of her. So however they choose to deliver it, I look forward to seeing her on the big screen, the unlikely monster making war with dragons and ancient beasts on glorious, technicolor wings.
But seriously, you have to give us the little fairies.