The film did well at the box office but was panned by U.S. critics upon its stateside release as a typical B-grade monster-on-the-loose flick. Its basic plot was recycled in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1962 and 1964, both also written by Sekizawa), and the daikaiju Mothra would become one of Toho's most popular, appearing in seven more Godzilla films and her own trilogy in the 1990s.
An expedition to an irradiated island brings civilization in contact with a primitive native culture. When one sensationalist entrepreneur tries to exploit the islanders, their ancient deity arises in retaliation. In waters off Infant Island, a presumedly uninhabited site for Rolisican atomic tests, the Daini-Gen'you-Maru is caught and run aground in the turbulence of a typhoon. A rescue party following the storm finds four sailors alive and strangely unafflicted with radiation sickness, which they attribute to the juice provided them by island natives. The story is broken by tenacious reporter Zenichiro (also known as "Bulldog" or "Zen-chan") Fukuda (Sakai) and photographer Michi Hanamura (Kagawa), who infiltrate the hospital examining the survivors.The Rolisican Embassy responds by co-sponsoring a joint Japanese–Rolisican scientific expediction to Infant Island, led by capitalist Clark Nelson (Ito). Also on the expedition are radiation specialist Dr. Harada (Ken Uehara), linguist/anthropologist Shin'ichi Chūjō (Koizumi), and stowaway reporter Fukuda. Chūjō has studied the cultures of islands in the area and ascertained that one of the key hieroglyphs in their written language, a radiant cross-shaped star, translates as Mothra. There the team discover a vast jungle of mutated flora, a fleeting native tribe, and two young women only twelve inches tall (the Peanuts). These "shobijin" (small beauties), as Fukuda dubs them, wish their island to be spared further atomic testing. Acknowledging this message, the team returns and conceals these events from the public. Nelson, however, returns to the island with a crew of henchmen and abducts the girls, gunning down several natives who try to save them. While Nelson profits off a "Secret Fairies Show" in Tokyo featuring the girls singing, both they and the island natives beseech their god Mothra, a giant egg, for help. Fukuda, Hanamura, and Chūjō communicate with the young women via telepathy; they express conviction that Mothra will come to their aid and warn that "good people are sure to be hurt". Meanwhile, Fukuda's newspaper has accused Nelson of holding the girls against their will; Nelson denies the charge and files a libel suit against the paper. Meanwhile, the island egg hatches to reveal a gigantic caterpillar, which begins swimming the Pacific Ocean toward Japan. The caterpillar destroys a cruise ship and survives a napalm attack on a beeline path for Tokyo. The Rolisican Embassy, however, defends Nelson's property rights over the girls, ignoring any connection to the monster.
Mothra finally arrives on the Japanese mainland, impervious to the barrage of weaponry directed at it, ultimately building a cocoon in the ruins of Tokyo Tower. Public feeling turns against Nelson, and he is ordered to release the girls. He flees incognito to Rolisica, where Mothra, newly hatched in an imago form, immediately resumes her search. Police scour New Kirk City for Nelson as Mothra lays waste to the metropolis. Ultimately Nelson is killed in a shootout with police, and the girls are assigned to Chūjō's care. Church bells begin to ring, and sunlight illuminates the cross atop the steeple with radiant beams, reminding Chūjō and Hanamura of Mothra's unique symbol and of the girls' voices. Chūjō hits upon a novel way to attract Mothra to an airport runway. The girls are returned amid salutations of "sayōnara", and Mothra flies back to Infant Island.
Mothra was the first of the kaiju eiga to distance itself from the genre of horror. Unlike Godzilla (1954), Godzilla Raids Again (1955), and Rodan (1956), thematically and visually darker films full of allegory and scenes of death, Mothra is vibrant, colorful, and at times jovial. Even the scenes of destruction in Mothra are depicted with an air of fantasy: rather unlike actual automobiles, cars and trucks caught in Mothra's gusts are tossed and bounced about the cityscape of New Kirk like leaves in a dust devil. As a daikaiju Mothra is assigned an unprecedented level of personality, imbued as the shobijin's guardian with loyalty and nobility. The film ends not with Mothra's death or incapacitation but with her success at retrieving the shobijin and returning—-in peace and on good terms with Japan—-to Infant Island. The true antagonist of the film is instead the greedy sensationalist Clark Nelson, whose role lends itself to broad interpretation. Fukuda describes him as an "art dealer", of the type who raid historic sites for riches. The film was conceived and released at the outset of the Japanese post-war economic miracle, amid the liberalization of business from government regulation; by placing an (Occidental) capitalist in such a villainous role, the film propounds a strong critique of the Western model of capitalism itself. The ending of the film alludes heavily to Christianity: Mothra's symbol is revealed to bear a likeness to the Christian cross—though it more specifically resembles the Celtic cross—and its image, joined by the sound of ringing church bells, is used to summon Mothra and show her where to land. Remarkably, whereas the propagation of Western capitalism is to blame for Mothra's destructive onslaught, it is Western religion which appeases it.
The fictional nation in the movie is clearly a substitute for America. Rolisica is an amalgam of both America and Russia (USSR at the time). The capital, New Kirk City, which Mothra attacks, shares an uncanny resemblance to that of New York City, specifically in its Manhattan-like skyline. The people of Rolisica are clearly coded as Americans; some were played by Turkish actors. The neighborhood where Nelson is killed seems to have an Eastern Orthodox ambiance, similar to that of Russia; in the uncut version, two priests, one clearly Orthodox, comment that the people can only pray that Mothra will not destroy them. The church bells begin ringing immediately following this speech. The Rolisican flag displays a large crescent moon and small star, reflecting the flag of the Islamic Republic as well as the sickle of the Soviet Union. Roliscan military uniforms, seen in briefly when the Roliscan military lends Japan a weapon to defeat Mothra, resemble those of the Soviet military. The matte scenes that show Rolisican civilians looking at Mothra in the sky were filmed in Los Angeles, California. Toho had done some filming there in early 1961 and the footage added into Mothra.
Mothra was released in the United States in May 1962 on a double-bill with The Three Stooges in Orbit. New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler gave the film a generally positive review, singling out the color and special effects for praise. "There's that color, as pretty as can be, that now and then smites the eye with some genuinely artistic panoramas and décor designs." Some plot points, also, were favorably mentioned: "Fantastic though the plot may be, there are some genuinely penetrating moments, such as the contrast of the approaching terror and those patient, silvery-voiced little 'dolls,' serenely awaiting rescue. Several of the special effects shots are brilliant, such as the sight of a giant cocoon nestling against a large city's power station tower" (in reality, it was Tokyo Tower, a landmark broadcasting tower).
ISHIRO HONDA (1962)