Japanese Sci-Fi Double Feature
Japanese Horror Film Double Feature
with MOTHRA (1961) and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1956)
Hosted by August Ragone
Thursday, March 20, 7:30 PM
Clay Theater, 2261 Fillmore St., San Francisco CA
This week, August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film will host a Japanese Sci-Fi double feature at the Clay Theater in San Francisco. In between the evening showings, he will give a talk about Tsuburaya and his uniquely captivating films MOTHRA and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE. Intrigued by the Idea of a gigantic multicolored moth that metes out retribution to an oppressive world, we had to know more. August took some time to share his vast knowledge of the subject In a recent Interview:
Q: You’re hosting the upcoming “double feature” screening of MOTHRA (1961) and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1956). Did you select those particular films and why?
A: Because of the impression the book has made, the folks at Landmark Theaters were interested in having me host a tribute to Eiji Tsuburaya, the legendary visual effects director. As for selecting the films, I strongly suggested these two films, because I think that they are representative of the deluge started by the international success of the original GODZILLA in 1956.
It was cool that Chris Hatfield (Clay Theater) was able to book them, since these are two of my favorite films of this period. Now, someone might ask, “No Godzilla?” Firstly, there’s not enough titles available for theatrical bookings from the period that Tsuburaya was directing, and what is available has certainly been screened to death in the last couple of years — I was the film programmer for “Godzillafest” at the Castro Theatre in 2004, and we ran as many as we could find. So, that narrowed the field.
But, with all that being said, we felt that selecting this pair would best represent Tsuburaya, since these two films are not available on DVD, and that they have — pound for pound — more visual effects sequences than other Tsuburaya production from this period. Even more so that the other “kaiju eiga” (monster movies), such as GODZILLA and RODAN (1956). MOTHRA and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE are jammed with numerous visual effects sequences, which for their time were considered some of the best being produced in the world. Tsuburaya and his team just went nuts on BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and MOTHRA.
For example, the narrative of BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is driven by visual effects set pieces, leading up to the climatic confrontation between the invaders and the forces of a united mankind. Among the numerous action scenes, you get to see the aliens attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. The film is also lavish in other ways, from the numerous sets, such as the expansive interior of the spaceships that voyage to the Moon, to the hundreds of extras employed to add spectacle — shot in Eastman Color and Toho’s scope process, Tohoscope — far superior to the majority of space pictures of that period, many of which rank as dreary, low-budget affairs.
Plus, it really pays off with scenes mass destruction on an intergalactic scale, and the final battle with space fighters vs. flying saucers, was the first of its kind — 18 years before STAR WARS (1977). But, the truth be told, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it as a kid. What young boy wouldn’t be thrilled with an adventure that whisks you from the Earth to the Moon, back again, and then features the first-ever dog-fight in space? I’m still waiting to enlist in the Armed Space Forces to fight alien invaders!
Q: Who is Mothra?
A: Mothra is unlike previous monsters created by Tsuburaya, such as Godzilla and Rodan, who were both dinosaurian creatures, and the film is also different. The earlier productions were tales of giant monsters awakening in the real world, while MOTHRA was the first of Toho’s kaiju eiga to add a strong sense of fantasy, with Mothra being a divine monster — a monster god. It was only natural that they would eventually come to create a monster from the insect world.
Q: In the pantheon of Japanese monsters, how high does she rank?
A: Mothra is one of the top five. When people think of Japanese monsters, they usually are grouped as “Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra.” In Japan, Mothra is very popular with women and children — people love a pretty monster! The original film created a huge impact, and sold over nine million tickets in Japan, which was impressive for a country smaller than California. It also helped the film starred one of the top singing duos of the time, The Peanuts, Yumi and Emi Ito, who were twins with beautiful voices.
Q: Due to her moth lifecycle, she can take on multiple forms. Is that unique in these type of films?
A: It really was at the time. It was unique. Of course, today we have the Alien series — and a great part of the appeal of those monsters is their life cycle and metamorphosis. But, Mothra was really the first to have such a dynamic and dramatic life cycle played out on film.
Q: In order to be such an authority on Japanese monster movies, you must have seen a lot of them. Personally, what interests you about the Mothra? Which of her films is your favorite?
A: As I said earlier, the original film is one of my all-time favorites, and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964), which is also one of my all-time favorite Godzilla films. But, the original MOTHRA is a vital lynchpin in the development of the genre; it’s a bridge between the reality-based films and the fantasy films that the genre would evolve into. It’s more like a fairy tale than a monster movie, per se, compared to GODZILLA.
MOTHRA can also be seen as an inversion — or spin — on KING KONG. In KONG, an expedition to a remote island meets and captures a huge monster, considered a god by the natives, put it on display back in civilization, it escapes and goes on a rampage. In MOTHRA, an expedition to an island used for H-Bomb tests stumbles upon two tiny women, who are subsequently captured and put on display back in civilization. The island’s god, Mothra, awakens and goes on a rampage to return the twin faeries.
The movie was a huge production for Toho and even Columbia Pictures became involved in the production of MOTHRA when they purchased the overseas distribution rights, commissioning a new ending. The original climax took place in the mountains of Hokkaido after Mothra’s metamorphosis, which was filmed on location. Columbia Pictures wanted to add more spectacle to the film, so a 4th Act was added — Mothra follows the twin faeries, who have been taken out of Japan, to the fictional country of Roliisica, and the creature lays waste to New Kirk City in search of the girls. This, of course, required Tsuburaya to do more of his movie magic — which is always a good thing.
Q: Does Mothra mean something different to American and Japanese audiences?
A: The Japanese “get” Mothra, but I think that most Americans nowadays think it’s silly. But, as I say in my book, “Mothra, as a concept, is perhaps alien to the sensibilities of modern westerners, who have long forgotten the ancient symbolism of the moth in both eastern and western contexts — mother, light, metamorphosis, reincarnation, strength, and grace.” The Greek Goddess, Psyche, was also represented as a moth.
Q: Mothra has been in 14 films. Has she done all there is to do, or can you envision a new scenario that she has yet to encounter?
A: I feel that the character has been changed too much from the original films produced in the 1960s — re-envisioned and re-imagined. I don’t care much for these later films. They should have let sleeping monsters lie.
Q: You mentioned that Mothra’s original American movie poster said, “Mightiest Monster in All Creation! Ravishing a Universe for Love!” What was that all about?
A: Who knows? That’s American advertising tactics. But, these were not isolated to Japanese monster movies, but were the norm for U.S. film promotion. The more sensational, the better. These became less hyperbolic and more self-aware in the 1980s — ALIENS was “This Time, It’s War!,” etc. But, my heart is with the old ballyhoo for movies back in the 1950s through the 1970s. Some prime examples are “The Strangest Vengeance Ever Planned!” (TOUCH OF EVIL), “The next scream you hear may be your own!” (THE BIRDS), and “They’re young… they’re in love… and they kill people” (BONNIE AND CLYDE). They just don’t write tag lines like that anymore…
Q: Finally, what is the optimal snacking combo for a Japanese Sci-Fi film?
A: A Medium Popcorn and a non-cynical Sense of Wonder.
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