1960's films, Akira Kubo, Akira Takarada, alternate title, astronauts, auteur theory, cinema, Emi Ito, fighting monsters, Film auteurs, film franchise, film reviews, films, Ghidorah, giant monsters, giant moth, Godzilla, Godzilla film, Godzilla films, Godzilla vs Monster Zero, Godzilla vs Mothra, Godzilla vs The Thing, Hiroshi Koizumi, Invasion of Astro Monster, Ishiro Honda, Japan, Japanese cinema, Jun Tazaki, Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Mario Bava, monster movies, Monster Zero, Mothra, Mothra Island, Movies, Nick Adams, nuclear radiation, Planet of the Vampires, Planet X, Rodan, sci-fi, science-fiction, taking over the world, tropical islands, Yoshifumi Tajima, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Yu Fujiki, Yumi Ito, Yuriko Hoshi
While I’ve never been as big a fan of him as I am of King Kong or the Kraken, I’ve always enjoyed Godzilla films over the years. While the Toho Godzilla films tended to range in quality and focus over the years (at least as far as I’m concerned), there are a few that have managed to stake out their individual claims on my movie-loving heart. In particular, I’ve always been fond of Godzilla vs Mothra (1964), which features a fairly nutso storyline that manages to ape King Kong (1933) in more ways than one and Godzilla vs Monster Zero (1965), an even battier film that welds Planet of the Vampires (1965)-era Mario Bava to more traditional American ’50s sci-fi. Even though neither film is what I would call amazing, I’ve spent countless rainy afternoons watching them, over the years, and never cease to be entertained.
Godzilla vs Mothra (alt title: Godzilla vs the Thing) bears the benefit of featuring one of Godzilla’s more infamous opponents: the enormous, titular moth. Mothra leaves the relative comforts of its island (Mothra Island) where it’s worshipped like a god (probably because it has an island named after it) and travels to mainland Japan in order to retrieve one of its missing eggs. A recent typhoon (featuring some genuinely cool storm effects) ripped the egg away from the island, depositing it onto the shore where reporter Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada) and photographer Yoka Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi) just happen to be covering some storm-related flooding. The greedy locals quickly sell the massive egg to a local entrepeneur, Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima), who conspires to build a large amusement park around the egg and charge exorbitant admission prices. Kumayama is working hand-in-hand with Banzo Torahata (Kenji Sahara), an even shadier land developer. The twin fairies Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito) show up to try to convince the developers to do the right thing and give Mothra Island back their egg but are nearly captured for their troubles. When Sakai, Nakanishi and their new ally, Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi), try to help the fairies appeal to the villains, they are met with the classic request to “provide Mothra’s power of attorney for the egg.” Looks like this is about to go…to the People’s Court.
This wouldn’t be a Godzilla film without the big green guy, however, and it seems that the rampaging typhoon also disturbed his resting place. In short order, Godzilla is stomping about Tokyo, destroying things left and right and generally making a colossal pain in the ass out of himself. When all attempts to subdue/kill/get Godzilla’s attention, someone has the bright idea to see if Mothra might be able to help. As can be expected, however, the folks of Mothra Island are a little bit peeved at the mainlanders and don’t see much reason to lend them their all-powerful moth god. Will Sakai and the Professor be able to convince the people of Mothra Island to give them another chance, even though they’re selfish jerks? Will the aging Mothra be able to summon enough fury to kick the crap out of the big radioactive lizard one last time? Will Reporter Jiro Nakamura (Yu Fujiki) be able to stop eating eggs long enough to cover any of this unfolding chaos?
As previously mentioned, the basic plot and several additional elements of Godzilla vs Mothra definitely owe a debt to King Kong. Mothra Island is similar to the primitive Kong Island, complete with natives doing mysterious rituals, while the “captive egg” and surrounding media circus aspect are pretty easy to peg. Mothra Island is a pretty great location, to be honest, full of strange bleached bones, hypnotic chanting and tropical beauty. It makes a nice contrast to the mainland locations and provides for some nice contrast between the more primitive islanders and the modernized city folks, especially the brash young reporter. The scene where the fairies sing the song to Mothra is hauntingly beautiful, evoking a smoky, mysterious atmosphere that would seem to be at home in either a dark night club or a giant moth’s place of residence.
There are also plenty of genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout the film, whether the ongoing joke of Jiro’s constant egg eating (this never got old for me) or the His Girl Friday (1940)-esque banter between Sakai and Nakanishi. I also like the surprisingly dark edge that Kenji Sahara brings to the proceedings as the genuinely dangerous Torahata: he doesn’t come across as goofy which provides a nice counterbalance to Tajima’s more bafoonish performance as Kumayama. The rest of the cast is pretty good, with Takarada proving a capable hero and director Ishiro Honda’s direction is typically assured throughout. If I had any complaints, really, it would have to be that the climatic battle between Godzilla and the larvae gets to be kind of tedious: it seems like we watch them spray silk on Godzilla for at least a few weeks, if not longer, and this gives the otherwise kinetic film a rather deflated ending. Nonetheless, there’s a reason that Godzilla vs Mothra tends to be one of the most widely recognized and liked Godzilla films: it’s a fast, fun romp that’s light on big concepts but heavy on well-filmed destruction.
On the other end of the spectrum from Godzilla vs Mothra, we have Godzilla vs Monster Zero. Here, the P.T. Barnum influence from the first has been replaced by a more daffy, 1960’s swingin’-cocktail kind of sci-fi, the kind perfectly exemplified by Mario Bava’s pioneering Planet of the Vampires. The emphasis here is on strange alien worlds, as the Earth makes contact with a mysterious planet dubbed Planet X. Heroic astronauts Glenn (Nick Adams) and Fuji (Godzilla vs Mothra’s Akira Takarada) are the first earthlings to make contact with the Xers and they find the aliens to be cordial, technologically advanced and in need of a bit of help. It seems that the tyrannical, three-headed dragon Ghidorah (known as Monster Zero to the Xers) rules the surface of their planet, forcing the Xers to live underground. If the humans will be so kind as to lend the Xers Godzilla and Rodan, they’ll be able to use the monsters (known to them as Monsters One and Two) to chase Monster Zero away, allowing them to reclaim the surface. In exchange, the Xers will give Earth a formula for a medicine that will cure all know ailments. Too good to be true, eh?
The plot thickens as nerdy inventor Tetsuo Teri (Akira Kubo), who just happens to be dating astronaut Fuji’s sister, Haruno (Keiko Sawai), runs into some strangeness with the noise-emitting device that he just sold to an educational toy company. The company rep, Miss Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), seems to be stonewalling Tetsuo: she’s also dating Glenn, which makes everyone’s private lives as intricately intertwined as an Escher drawing. When Glenn and Fuji see the supposedly benevolent Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) on Earth, they begin to think things are a little fishy. And they are, of course, although no one realizes this until Godzilla and Rodan have already been sent to Planet X, where the Controller turns around and threatens Earth with the combined might of Monsters Zero, One and Two. If Earth doesn’t agree to become a colony of Planet X, the whole place will be destroyed by the radio-wave-controlled monsters. It’s up to Glenn, Fuji and Tetsuo to figure out a way to thwart the Xers and save the people of Earth from three very pissed-off monsters.
As a huge fan of Mario Bava (Planet of the Vampires is easily one of my favorite sci-fi films), I absolutely love the “Bava-lite” atmosphere that can be found all over Godzilla vs Monster Zero. From the coolly retro space-suits and electronics to the vivid glowing elevators that bring people to the surface of Planet X, the film is a marvel of set design and is pure eye-candy from beginning to end. Toss in some pretty great monster designs (in particular, Ghidorah looks absolutely terrifying during his initial appearance) and you have what definitely has to be one of the best-looking Godzilla films. As with Godzilla vs Mothra, the performances are universally solid, although they tend to be a bit pulpier and hammier than the previous film (in particular, Glenn is a real jewel, prone to plenty of great lines like “You rats! You dirty, stinking rats!”). Takarada turns in another self-assured lead performance, although his Fuji is an even bigger shithead than Sakai was.
The colonialism subplot is an interesting one, especially during the scene where the people of Earth begin to choose sides: pro-X or anti-X. Rather than being buried in the subtext, the colonialism aspect is pushed right to the forefront, making this a film that’s as much about overcoming an oppressive outside force as it is about subduing Godzilla. In fact, Godzilla and Rodan (incidental damages notwithstanding) definitely function more as anti-heroes than straight-up bad guys, with the denizens of Planet X taking the “black hat” role. It’s another interesting aspect of the film that seems to distance it from other Godzilla films a bit, making it seem a little more “mature” even as the sci-fi aspects become more outlandish and pronounced. As with Godzilla vs Mothra, Ishiro Honda’s direction is self-assured and there are several standout moments: in particular, the scene where Godzilla and Rodan are raised from their respective watery resting places is quite a sight to behold.
As with Godzilla vs Mothra, there are minor quibbles to be found throughout the film. Some of the stereotypical ’50s sci-fi stuff can get more than a little cheesy, for example, and Godzilla had an unfortunate tendency to do a “Super Bowl Shuffle”-type endzone dance whenever he was victorious that positively drove me up the wall. That being said, Godzilla vs Monster Zero is a fun, fairly unique and reasonably exciting entry in the Godzilla canon. For the hell of it, put this on a double-bill with Bava’s Planet of the Vampires sometime and tell me there’s not some kind of weird synergy going on there.