Tim here. As the Film Experience’s resident giddy Godzilla fanboy, I’m as excited as anybody else for the increasingly buzzy new movie starring the world’s most famous giant lizard opening in just two weeks. But with 60 years of history, there’s more Godzilla to love than just one more CGI-driven popcorn epic in a sea of them.
I bring this up because on top of all the other Godzilla-related anniversary antics going on right now (including, in several cities, revivals of the series-starting1954 film in its original Japanese version), this week marks the 50th anniversary of what many of us consider to be the best of all the Godzilla sequels: Mothra vs. Godzilla, also known in English as Godzilla vs. the Thing and Godzilla vs. Mothra, because nothing can ever be easy, least of all fantasy movies about people in rubber suits. It was the last film in the series until the 1980s that presented Godzilla as a real, significant threat, and not a lovable anti-hero or out-and-out protagonist; it was also the first movie whose American cut was largely identical to the one seen in Japan. Though it’s still worth watching it in Japanese, and getting the weird mental disconnect between watching a subtitled movie (which typically reads as “classy”) and watching a movie about giant monsters (which… doesn’t).
More the point, it's one of the few films out of the whole franchise that treats the junk food genre fare with gravity and seriousness. And for this we can thank Ishiro Honda, one of the best directors of science fiction at any time in any country; all of the best of the early Godzilla films are his, and he was a close associate and shadow co-director of no less a titanic figure than Akira Kurosawa, particularly in the last few films of that master's career. But sticking to 1964, we find him doing the astonishing job of making battles between a giant radioactive dinosaur and a nature spirit in the form of a giant moth genuinely effective and emotionally involving. There's a world of difference between a film that presents mindless spectacle as so much popcorn fluff, and a film that presents the mindless spectacle with a clear eye to how it exists in a world that looks comfortably similar to our own, and in which the impact on relatively normal humans played with unforced naturalism is as important as the glossiness of the effects.
In which case, we might well ask if it is still “mindless”.
This is the thing that makes Honda's sci-fi thrillers so great: the human beings being threatened or inconvenienced by the giant monsters are plausible, well-etched, and easy to empathize with. Mothra vs Godzilla, unlike many monster movies, doesn't really spend any time with its humans outside of the very immediate situation of trying to survive the two titular creatures, and yet without giving them any kind of fussy backstory or independent dramatic stakes, they're all completely involving. We care about the monsters because we care about the humans they effect.
Even when those humans are dressed like walking cupcakes
That being said, Mothra vs. Godzilla is still a wild success as a broad, effects-driven action movie. It was made by the usual suspects for Toho's top-shelf sci-fi epics, Honda being joined by effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube; the latter of these men could always be counted on for a rousing series of militaristic cues and in this case added an ethereal chant sung by a pair of fairies to rouse Mothra to action, but it's the former who was worth his weight in gold. The monster fights Tsuburaya staged for this film are among the best in the genre's entire history, particularly the climax that finds Godzilla dueling with Mothra's two larval offspring, and raging with surprisingly human frustration as he loses (much credit belongs to Haruo Nakajima, the indispensable suit actor who played Godzilla in his first several movies, and always found innovative ways of combining animalistic force with a surprisingly human personality). The way that the fights have been filmed – in urgent, slightly sped-up footage that adds a frenzied viciousness – and the care put into the creation of the creatures (this Godzilla suit is a longstanding fan favorite, though I'll admit to never having cared for it very much) makes the action scenes particularly exciting to watch, and coupled with the extra attention paid to the human beings on the sidelines, it leaves Mothra vs. Godzilla as one of the most fun and most sincere movies in its franchise. It holds up powerfully well after a half century, well enough that if I had to pick one single Japanese monster movie of all time to show to a disinterested third party, it would be this one.