It almost seems wrong to watch Mothra before Gojira/Godzilla, but since Godzilla wasn't part of the challenge, he's going to have to wait. Technically, I've already seen Godzilla 2000, so this wasn't my first Japanese monster film, just my first of the original Toho films. I know I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but why do so many of these monster movies take so long to show us the monster? I know there were budget concerns, but once you build the monster, don't you want to have it on screen for as long as you possibly can?
The theme of Mothra is not the perils of nuclear war, as you might expect from a Japanese monster movie. It's actually all about not messing with nature for your own personal gain. The beginning of the film reminded me a lot of King Kong, as they discover an island full of all kinds of strange plants and people. I couldn't help but laugh as one of the characters, who was a linguist, took one look at a giant plant and immediately recognized it as mold grown to enormous size. His ability to understand the language of the tiny humans he finds, which are nothing more than high pitch squeals, was equally laughable, but at least made a little more sense given his background. The two tiny women are eventually kidnapped by a man who wishes to show them off for money, once again drawing the King Kong comparison. Unfortunately for him, and all of Japan, the "fairies" have a telepathic ability that allows them to call Mothra to rescue them. A reporter, a camera woman, and the linguist are out to rescue the little ladies and stop Mothra's rampage.
All the other natives of the island are normal size. They are supposed to be some variation of Polynesian, I think. They do a dance to help hatch Mothra from a giant egg. I actually thought this part was really fun to watch, though it does go on a little long. I found myself shouting "Just hatch already!" after awhile. When she finally does hatch, 45 minutes into the film, she is a caterpillar. I guess I should have expected that because of Insectosaurus in Monsters vs Aliens, but silly me thought that was just something invented as a joke for that film. Once hatched it doesn't take her long to destroy a cruise ship, but then we are subjected to very long scenes of her floating in the ocean while they waste their time trying to drop bombs on her. When she finally gets to land she barrels through some buildings before building herself a cocoon on the Tokyo Tower. Finally, somewhere around one hour and twenty minutes in the film, we see Mothra in her final form. Her wings are apparently powerful enough to create hurricane force winds and she uses them to cause even more destruction.
An unexpected highlight of this film was the music. While probably not for everyone, I really enjoyed the song sung by the little fairies who are played by Japanese singing duo The Peanuts. They're identical twins and their voices are very distinctive, especially as they sing together. I really enjoyed it.
As much as I was looking forward to seeing Mothra tear into things, I actually found most of the destruction less than satisfying. I knew it was going to be cheaply done, of course, but I felt like there was little to no tension there. A few more reactions shots from the crowd might have been helpful. The most tense scene is one where Mothra has broken apart a dam while coming to shore and the rising water is threatening to break a bridge apart. A couple is carrying their baby in a basket on their cart and don't realize when the basket slips off. One of the heroes runs out to save the baby just before the bridge falls apart. Beyond that we mostly get a lot of scenes of buildings breaking apart and crunched cars flying around. It's all very cute and certainly has a charm all its own, I was just hoping for a few more thrills.
Luckily, the story behind it all, of the small people being taken advantage of and rescued, the reporter juggling his responsibility to reveal news to the public and protect the innocent, and the jerk of a man who kidnapped the ladies and finally gets his comeuppance, is all really well done and makes the wait worthwhile. It definitely made me want to watch more of these Toho films. Mothra herself has appeared in a total of 17 other films besides this one, and according to Wikipedia has the most wins over Godzilla!
You'll notice I refer to Mothra as a she. Technically, in the Japanese version of the film I watched, they refer to Mothra as an it, but I've mostly heard people reference her as female. Insectosaurus, on the other hand, is apparently male. He's also a lot wider than Mothra in caterpillar form. He's said to be a normal grub transformed by radiation rather than a mystical creature hatched on a hidden island, and obviously there are no tiny fairies. Beyond being the largest member of their ragtag group, he's used as the cliche sad moment in children's films, where they make you think a character dies. In Insectosaurus's case, he actually builds a cocoon around himself and becomes Butterflysaurus. Considering how long he was hanging out in the government facility, that is an extremely long larval stage.
I can't think of any references to Mothra in popular culture, though it's entirely possible that I'm just missing them. I think most of the popularity and fame go to Godzilla, so that you're far more likely to see a giant lizard being shown over a giant moth. I think it's nice that Monsters vs Aliens turned the tables a little bit and used her instead - otherwise I may never have watched this film.