Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth/Godzilla vs. Mothra/Gojira tai Mosura (1992/1998) **½
While not exactly good, this nineteenth Godzilla movie-- the fourth since the series was resurrected in 1984-- is certainly respectable. As with its immediate predecessors, Godzilla vs. Biolante and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, it features startlingly good special optical effects combined with a much-improved version of the traditional rubber-suits-and-miniature-sets technique familiar from earlier Japanese monster films. Even the dubbing, that perennial credibility-killer, is dramatically improved, though Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth/Godzilla vs. Mothra/Gojira tai Mosura suffers a bit from the bad, phony American accents that made Godzilla vs. Biolante sound like such a big fucking joke.
Chances are, the first thing you’ll say to yourself upon seeing the first scene following the opening credits (we’ll disregard the prologue for the moment) is, “what the hell is this scene doing in this movie?” Deep in some musty, Angkor Wat-looking ruin, a young Japanese man (Tetsuya Bessho, of Solar Crisis), dressed remarkably like Indiana Jones, is attempting to get at a small statue of an elephant-headed, multi-appendaged Hindu deity, which is standing at the far end of a cramped cubby-hole just out of the man’s reach. He eventually gets the statue, but, in a bludgeoningly obvious reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, his success causes the ruins to crumble around him, forcing him to race to the surface with the tide of destruction at his heels. When he emerges, he finds himself looking down the barrels of several white-helmeted policemen’s rifles.
We see him next in his jail cell, which, considering the fact that this is apparently Thailand (though you’ll need sharp ears to catch that), is an especially undesirable place to be. Tomashi, the head of the Japanese security service from the last movie, and a much younger woman (Satomi Kobayashi) have come to see him. The woman is his ex-wife, Masako (who, by the way, later turns out to be the sister of everybody’s least favorite psychic chick, Miki Saegusa [Megumi Ogata once again]-- I guess that was the only pretext they could think of on which to wedge Miki into this movie, to whose plot she proves to be particularly useless). Indiana Jones himself turns out to be named Takuya (though I’d like to point out that his name is uttered exactly twice, and if you miss it this time [and you will], you’ll have to wait until the movie is half over for your second chance). What brings Tomashi and Masako to Takuya’s cell concerns events from that prologue I alluded to in the last paragraph. The security service’s satellite network detected the entry into Earth’s atmosphere of a 93-meter diameter asteroid that smacked into the planet on or near an island in Indonesia. The collision has set in motion a number of alarming ecological catastrophes, including several typhoons, the rising of sea-levels in the vicinity of its crash-site (don’t ask me how), and perhaps worst of all, the re-awakening of Godzilla, who had conveniently enough chosen that particular part of the ocean when he went back into hibernation after the last movie. Because it just so happens that the company that owns the aforementioned island is tight with the government, a deal has been struck whereby Masako (an ecologist who works for the government) and a company representative named Ando (The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion’s Takehiro Murata) will go there to have a look around. For some reason, the men upstairs have also decided that Takuya’s Indiana Jones talents may be useful. The Japanese government has offered to pull some strings to get Takuya released from prison (you don’t just go around demolishing 1000-year-old archeological treasures and get off with a slap on the wrist, you know) provided he go along with Masako. Takuya agrees when he finds out that he has been sentenced to fifteen years’ incarceration. Smart guy, Takuya.
Now, wouldn’t you know it, the island has a name-- Infant Island-- which long-time kaiju eiga fans are likely to remember as the home of a couple of 14-inch singing twins and a certain giant lepidopterous insect. But apparently the original Mothra is not a part of this movie’s back-story, because none of the characters seem to know this, and when they reach the island itself, it’s clearly not quite the same place as the Infant Island of the 1960’s. In the old movies, Infant Island was home to a rather dense population of Japanese bit-players and Malaysian extras. This time around, it appears to have no human inhabitants at all. What it does have is a fair amount of environmental damage caused by the recent rash of asteroid-induced typhoons, although for some reason, Masako and company insist on blaming the heavy ecological tread of humans for the destruction. (This point will be made again and again throughout Godzilla vs. Mothra. You’ll eventually lose count of the number of times that somebody blames the side-effects of human industry for environmental disasters caused by either the asteroid strike or the actions of the monsters.) Masako’s mission ends up being a washout as far as finding the link between the asteroid and the disasters is concerned, but she, Takuya, and Ando do find something of interest. All the erosion has dug up what appears to be an enormous egg-- and when I say “enormous,” I mean it’s bigger than the freighter that later comes to haul it to Japan (a special barge is necessary to move the thing). The trio also find a hidden cave decorated with extremely ancient paintings of a pair of weird butterfly-looking things, and with an elaborate skylight cut into the ceiling. What’s more, this cave is home to a pair of 14-inch singing twins! The girls introduce themselves as “the Cosmos of the Earth” (Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa) and explain the meaning of the cave paintings. They depict the story of Mothra. Some 12,000 years ago, an extremely advanced and now completely extinct civilization existed (Atlantis? The Seatopians of Godzilla vs. Megalon?), whose people worshipped a benevolent insect-god called Mothra. Like modern man, these people wreaked tremendous ecological havoc as a by-product of their way of life, and one day, the Earth got sick of dealing with them and created an avenging angel of sorts, the Black Mothra, a monstrous butterfly-rhinoceros beetle thing named Battra. Battra took its avenging angel job so seriously that it destroyed not only the “Atlantians,” but also every living thing in its path. That kind of overkill didn’t sit too well with Mothra, and a duel to the death ensued, which Mothra won, ensuring the survival of life on Earth. That big egg, in case you haven’t figured it out, belongs to Mothra.
There’s a warning in the Cosmos’ story, too. They say that the asteroid strike has resurrected Battra, and that the Black Mothra will soon be appearing to destroy all life again. That, presumably, is the reason for the reappearance of Mothra. And it turns out that this Caterpillar Apocalypse is coming sooner than anyone imagined-- like in about ten minutes! While Masako, Takuya, and Ando kill time with the Cosmos, a gargantuan caterpillar, bristling with spikes and horns, emerges from the sea and wrecks a city before burrowing into the ground and vanishing from sight as suddenly as it had appeared. And there will be a third dimension to the clash that the Cosmos never anticipated. As the freighter from Ando’s company hauls Mothra’s egg to Japan (basically because that’s just what you do when you find a monster in the South Pacific-- take it to a densely-populated, conspicuously smashable city), Godzilla surfaces and attacks the egg-barge. The egg fortunately hatches into a 50-meter caterpillar (the Mothra caterpillar is the only kaiju that actually looked more convincing in the 60’s), which takes on Godzilla and gets its ass soundly kicked until Battra arrives out of nowhere and enters the fray, clobbering Mothra before turning its attention to Godzilla. The ensuing undersea battle between Battra and Godzilla is really impressive, but it is cut short by a volcanic eruption that swallows up both monsters.
Back in Japan, there’s some not-very-interesting plot concerning Masako and Takuya’s efforts to resurrect their marriage and Ando’s environmentalist soul-searching. Then, just in time, Mothra comes to Japan. The caterpillar’s clash with the Japanese navy is a bit sorry-- it’s too long, and nowhere near as well choreographed as the very similar scene in Godzilla vs. Biolante, and after all, the limitations on the excitement potential of watching a giant caterpillar fight should be fairly obvious. Things get a bit better on land, where there is scenery to smash along with the model tanks. Mothra’s rampage was instigated by the Cosmos, who were less than thrilled when Ando abducted them and brought them to his boss. Takuya steals them back shortly thereafter, but for some reason, Masako is convinced that it was he that kidnapped them in the first place, regardless of the fact that he was with her when Ando absconded with them! Meanwhile, Mothra goes on smashing Tokyo, until the Cosmos are finally convinced to call the big bug off by Takuya and Masako’s daughter. (This is frankly one of the most surreal scenes in the movie, almost worthy of a 60’s-vintage Gamera film-- watch and you’ll see what I mean.) Mothra then goes to the Capitol building and spins itself a cocoon.
But there’s at least half an hour left of the movie, so we know there has to be some more ass-kicking in the offing. And sure enough, Mount Fuji erupts, freeing Godzilla (the scientists in the movie can’t explain that one, either), and the King of the Monsters gets down to business fucking shit up in Yokohama. Mothra picks that moment to emerge from its cocoon, and the two monsters go at it, the ensuing action immensely improved by the fact that Mothra has finally been given some powers that are worth a fuck-- hurricane- force winds might stop the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, but they’re not much good against a monster. A few minutes later, the new and improved Imago-Battra (an imago is what you call an adult butterfly or moth, for you entomological lightweights out there) arrives, and it’s a veritable free-for-all steel-cage grudge match at the amusement park. (When was the last time you saw a ferris wheel used as a weapon?) The two bugs divide their time between beating each other up and getting their asses handed to them by Godzilla for about half of the fight before finally wising up and tag-teaming the big lizard, with results that are fairly predictable, given that Godzilla is at least technically the bad guy in the post-1984 films.
This climactic battle is bizarre on so many levels. There is some serious symbolism being thrown around here, and the best part is that the filmmakers don’t seem to have been able to keep track of it all. Think about it. We have Mothra, the symbolic protector of life on Earth, versus Battra, the symbolic avenger of the Earth itself against the life-forms inhabiting it, versus Godzilla, the symbolic personification of humanity’s thermonuclear death-wish. Do you want to try to make sense of that? Neither did the people who made this movie. Furthermore, nobody seems quite decided on which monster we’re supposed to root for. The characters watching the battle seem more or less equally concerned for Mothra and Godzilla, with only Battra-- who by the end is at least theoretically on Mothra’s side-- lacking a cheering section. Matters are complicated further by the fact that, as in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, it may do us humans little good when one of the monsters kills another-- that still leaves us with a couple of indestructible monsters on the loose. Even Mothra is clearly extremely dangerous, with only the Cosmos’ good graces keeping it from flattening Japan.
One last point I want to raise is Mothra’s symbol. We first see it as the skylight pattern in the cave on Infant Island, and later, Mothra seems to use it to place some kind of magical binding spell on Godzilla. The main element of this emblem is a cross with a circle drawn around its junction-- a symbol which any Westerner will instantly recognize. What the hell is this about? Are we meant to infer that Mothra is somehow tied up with Christianity? For once, I have an answer to one of these seemingly unanswerable questions. You see, in Shinto-Buddhist Japan, the symbols of Christianity are often seen as being associated with the occult. Note how often monsters, devils, and demons inhabit churches in Japanese movies and cartoons (see, for example, the animes Wicked City and Devil Hunter Yohko). From an outsider’s perspective, Christianity could easily be seen as an excessively morbid death-cult, whose rituals involve nasty things like symbolic vampirism and cannibalism. Remember the doctrine of Transubstantiation; it is an article of the Catholic faith that the communion wine and wafer actually become the flesh and blood of Christ. Other Christian denominations may not be so overtly gruesome as Catholicism, but the symbolism is there, nevertheless. So to the Japanese, sticking a cross in the sigil of Mothra is a symbolic shorthand roughly equivalent to the Western use of the pentagram. In America, when you see a pentagram inscribed on something in a movie, you know automatically that you’re dealing with dangerous occult forces. Japanese filmmakers often use Christian symbols to achieve the same effect.
In the final assessment, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth is a qualified success. The human characters may be forgettable, but they are, as always, of secondary importance to anyone likely to watch this, at least in America. The special effects are mostly quite good, though I have some relatively minor complaints. I’ve already mentioned the severely fake-looking Mothra caterpillar. Battra’s larval stage is better, but I have to question the sense of using a man in a suit to play a monster whose body is not remotely humanoid. It doesn’t much matter when it’s in the water, but on land, the fact that there is an upright biped standing inside the raised forward section of Battra’s body is glaringly obvious. And I still have mixed feelings about the new Godzilla suit. As cool as it is to look at, it’s just too stiff to be very convincing. Sculpting all that musculature on the outside of the suit may look good when the thing is just standing there, but it practically screams, “Hey! Look at me-- I’m fake!” when Godzilla moves and his huge, bulging muscles don’t.
The biggest problem with this movie, though, is the extremely heavy-handed, but illogically presented, environmentalist message. I have nothing against sticking such a message into a Godzilla movie-- what was the original about, if not that technological progress has left a trail of open Pandora’s boxes in its wake?-- but I resent being hit over the head with that message every time a human character opens his or her mouth. Back in the 50’s Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata managed to write a very serious message into Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira without having it come across at preachy, so what the hell is wrong with Kazuki Omori that he couldn’t do the same with his script here? Worse than the obtrusiveness of Omori’s pontificating is the fact that he presents it in such a way that it makes absolutely no sense. When asked to point to a specific example of Ando’s Maurutomo Corporation’s sorry ecological record (note that, for once, the evil corporation is of Japanese origin!), the characters invariably come up with something that the movie clearly portrays as being an effect of the asteroid strike that opens the film. It isn’t as though there is a shortage of ecological crises in the world in which Omori could implicate Maurutomo. The deforestation on Infant Island for which Masako blames the company, for example, is a charge that could easily have been made to stick, had it not been for the fact that the movie’s prologue shows the very hillside to which Masako points being eroded cataclysmically by the typhoon that follows the asteroid’s landing. It’s enough to make me wonder whether Omori ever bothered to go back and re-read earlier scenes as he wrote.