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Mothra, Giant Monster Movies (daikaiju eiga), Zatoichi and Takashi Shimura

There’s a weird, sometimes silly, sometimes quite moving, beauty in 1961’s Mothra.

Glenn, over on A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed, calls attention to one of the more unexpected aspects of the Japanese “giant monster” movies, in a discussion of one of the best of them, Mothra—a film that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, overshadowed as it is by its more famous brethren, the “Godzilla” movies.

It is surprising to realize how many of the Japanese “giant monster” movies are indeed “quite moving.” The original Godzilla (1954) perhaps less so, but in subsequent appearances, when Godzilla emerged as the “hero” of the films, there was often something moving, poignant even in his struggles and eventual departure. In the later movies, Godzilla is a lot like the lone gunfighter of a Western, like Clint Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter or Shane in that movie. He comes to town—admittedly stomping a lot of it flat in the process—fights the bad monster, and then has to leave when the final battle is over, having no place in the world he has just made safe once again.

Minus the stomping, that’s also the plot of basically every Zatoichi movie—the series of samurai or sword fighting movies (chanbara (チャンバラ))  starring Shintaro Katsu which was a monster (the pun is inevitable) hit in Japan, with 26 movies and a three year run on TV. (There was also a “Zatoichi” remake a few years back with Takashi Kitano which was very good.) The blind masseur, Zatoichi—who is also a master swordsman, with a blade hidden in his cane—wanders into town in search of some peace and quiet, and maybe a little gambling and sake, only to get caught up in some conflict, often because he falls for a young woman.  He defeats the bad guys—typically a nasty gang of yakuza who he beats at gambling before having to fight them—but then must leave, as his vices and tendency to attract trouble make it impossible for him to settle down.

There’s another connection between giant monster movies like Mothra and Godzilla and samurai movies. Shimura Takashi starred regularly in both, and in some of the best films in both genres. He was in the first films for three of the biggest of Japanese giant monsters—Godzilla, Mothra and Ghidorah—and he appeared in twenty-one of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, including all his samurai pictures, from his first big hit, Rashomon, to the epic Seven Samurai and his spaghetti Western remake, Yojimbo. Shimura also starred in what I think may be Kurosawa’s finest film after Seven Samurai, the more than quite moving Ikiru, about which I wrote earlier. And he appeared in Inagaki’s 1962 film version of one of the most famous samurai tales, Chushingura (47 Samurai), as well as in a couple of Zatoichi movies.

I’ve loved him since the first time I saw Seven Samurai. It’s amazing to consider the movies in which he appeared—he was basically a Toho contract player, but he did consistently marvelous work in every role, pretty much equally in the cheesy monster movies and in the films that have become classics of world cinema.

What I loved about him in Seven Samurai and later in Ikiru was his ability to summon up a powerful sense of humanity, to convey inner states—of suffering, of pleasure—in his so expressive face, and the way he used small gestures, tics, to develop his characters. The best of these gestures is in Seven Samurai: the older ronin he plays is always rubbing the stubble of his hair, left after he cut off his samurai top knot when we first meet him. And he brings these same qualities to bear in his work in movies like Godzilla and Mothra. It’s part of why they end up being, against expectations, moving.

That, and their ability to tap into the same mythic tales and archetypes that drive some of the other great genre pictures—Godzilla, Zatoichi, Shane, Gamera, the survivors at the end of Seven Samurai (and The Magnificent Seven), all riding off into the sunset together, leaving small boys and beautiful young women behind, calling after them—but there is no place for any of them in the towns and Tokyos they have saved and now must leave, always the loners.

Mothra, though, is in the end an exception: the giant mutant bugs have a home and acceptance, even love, with the villagers of Monster Island. Which is also quite moving.

For more…

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2 Responses

  1. glenn says:

    Thanks for the link!

    I finally watched Mothra vs. Godzilla in its original Japanese form and I found that even more moving than Mothra. I have a post saved up for Friday.

    I appreciate the highlight of Takashi Shimura you’ve provided. Ikiru might be my favorite Kurosawa film. But the actor also grounds Seven Samurai. Each time I rewatch it, it seems that the story is held together by his character — the concepts of the film are defined by him.

    I seem to remember that actor played the villain of The Bad Sleep Well? I just vaguely recall having a hard time disliking the actor even as he played a creep.

    A bit of silly trivia: George Lucas admitted somewhere that he gave that rubbing-of-the-head gesture from Seven Samurai to Yoda in Revenge of the Sith. And there’s one scene where Yoda is riding in some vehicle across the city and he does that very same move.

    Maybe it’s silly to have a CGI/puppet mimic such a real actor but I liked it.

    After all, for someone of my generation, I watched Kurosawa films because Lucas referenced and name-checked them after Star Wars was a hit.

    • zerode says:

      You’re so right about Shimura grounding Seven Samurai. The film is complex and you get caught up in the separate stories of a number of the characters, but Shimura’s elderly ronin, who’s seen it all, is the heart of it.

      I’m pleased to hear that bit of trivia about Yoda, which was news to me. I’ve always liked Yoda, and he’s one of the reasons I can bear to watch the second set of Star Wars movies. I’m glad that there’s that Shimura influence at work.

      As for turning to Kurosawa’s films because of Star Wars, I find that really interesting, and of course it’s true for so many people. I know that one of the ways I got my son Misha interested in seeing “Hidden Fortress” was by bringing in the Star Wars connection. But once that was done, getting him past any initial resistance to a foreign, subtitled, black and white movie, no further work was needed. He loves Seven Samurai. Of course. (Actually, “thank the gods” is probably more appropriate – what would you do if your kid hated it?!?)

      I actually came to Kurosawa separately, through discovering Japanese samurai movies at a theater in San Francisco’s Japantown – where I saw not just the Kurosawa films, but also discovered Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub and a whole bunch of great movies. And that eventually brought me to non-samurai Japanese cinema. But since I was one of those people – and actually there aren’t that many of us – who saw the first Star Wars at the first screening on the day it opened, I would certainly have come to Kurosawa through that if I hadn’t already stumbled on him.

      Godzilla and Mothra of course I discovered on our local TV’s “Creature Features” program…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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