The Mothra trilogy seems like a series of productions just to keep money flowing from the occasional kaiju lifeblood Toho uniquely knows how to milk. Like THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, Mothra's return was a brainchild idea of Tomoyuki Tanaka, who probably had good intentions of a quality film respecting the original Motha iterations. In the end however, what we got was a trilogy of films spawned from the much fabled unproduced MOTHRA VS. BAGAN script
The first film in the trilogy is not a bad film. Its a decent enough children's film with enough development of the human characters to qualify in the most minimal of ways layered. Episodic gags with the childen and the Elias (the trilogy's version of the Shobijin) keep everything before the monster action lively and well structured. The monster action comes off the heels of the comedy, which really doesn't continue, but we have the monster action which also really reaps a great value of a Mothra film's ability to be a musical, the songs as dramatic scenes unto themselves. Of the trilogy, it combines these three qualities well - a total entertainment film.
Not that there isn't some drama in the film. Its a film with an envionmentally-fiendly message. We have parents who cannot reconcile the percieved needs and their order of priority. Director Yoneda was an assistant director with Kurosawa on his films RAN onward, pobably even learned a lesson or two from Ishiro Honda. He shows he is aware of stoy telling flourishes with the camera like slow-motion photography, but the more dramatic moments fall half flat. For example, particularly, is the scene of the father character riding the bull dozer which releases Death Ghidorah. He communicates enough visually to let audiences see what kind of scene he is intending, but the interplay of images isn't there. The more dramatic scenes only fall half-flat though, some credit is given. A Japanese HOME ALONE or BEETHOVEN would be more up his alley. Anything in the first film that would be considered cringe-worthy really are just uses of older cinematic conventions.
Similar, but not quite the same can be said about REBIRTH OF MOTHRA 2. A new director for the human drama was chosen, and it shows. MOTHRA 2 is more of the Indiana Jones-esque kind of action that drove GODZILLA VS. MOTHA (1992), which really calls to question if this wasn't the kind of atmosphere Tomoyuki Tanaka was trying to procure with the MOTHRA VS. BAGAN project. What the humans may be lacking in any development in the script, the cast makes up fo with their energetic caricatue-esque acting. Missing is the extensive musical numbers, breaking down part of the mythology that the first film in the trilogy set up - Mothra's evolutions and life stages are sung by the Elias as to be a catalyst for Mothra.
MOTHRA 2's detractors come from questionable influences from the concurrently running Gamera trilogy. You can switch out Nelai Kenai with Atlantis, Degarlah with the Gyaos, and Gamera with Mothra. Luckily, as far as the monster himself, Degarlah is a unique creation. His Barrems remind one of the Shokiurus from THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, a sign of his character arc (Descibed further below).
The third film saw the return of the first film's director, with a completely serious tone unlike the first two films, tearing at a certain cohesiveness of the trilogy. Then again, the third film is a boring rehash of the first film's ideas, just mixed in a way that the filmmakers thought were beneficial. Instead of having Ghidorah attain his energy from floura, he gets it from young human fauna. Ghidorah resembles himself and not a four legged cross with Bagan. It seems to be a failed attempt at tying to tie the kaiju stories and the human stories togeather (a possibly good move if done right, layered in with the Shobijin angle). Atleast the kaiju scenes, dramatically, work better as dramatic set pieces than the other two films.
That's the simple look at the human drama of the Mothra films. The human drama is simple enough in these films, with loose thematic connections to the original Mothra films. Crony capitalism is only really looked at in the fist two films, and both of them tie it back in with pro-envionmental themes. By this point in the franchise, a new variety of stock characters have been instituted for these themes: paper company executives and treasure hunters.
The important thing is these films made sure that Toho's SFX crew kept having work, and that Toho kept investing in newer technologies as to keep competitive. Until 2005, the first two MOTHRA films wee Koichi Kawakita's swang song. Afte winning the Japanese Academy Award for GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH and becoming the lagest share holder in Toho, Kawakita definitely had a legacy to protect, to end well. At first, it seems promising.
Kawakita was born to make these Mothra films. His visual style - manipulation of the camera and what's in front of the camea - is on full blast here. Lots of beams, transfoming monsters, use of glitter - it all fits with his fetishes. The sequences are a little more focused than usual, though it can seem at times that Kawakita's scenes consist of loosely visually or narratively connected shots. Again, the inclusion of musical numbers which have to be mixed in with the tokusatsu footage help this out alot. Meanwhile, he is having a blast at making a better Mothra prop with Mothra Leo, the best use of an actual flame thrower is part of the suit, and further use of CG.
The aged CG is forgivable, and the reusing of a four year old Mothra prop with limited mobility is forgivable. What isn't quite forgivable is a lack of some care with MOTHRA 2. The film's ambition of mostly underwater warfare between the kaiju is respectable, but there is a lack of quality. Five years previously, Kawakita filmed an underwater scene between Godzilla and Battra in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA. Missing from MOTHRA 2 which was in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA were the composited-in air bubbles, the processing of the sound effects to make the kaiju sound like they are underwater, details like this. Maybe too many CG shots took up the budget. Digital matteing would be another sucker of budget, and though more experimental in execution, the matte shots showcase issues with scale and lighting differences between the main plate and the composite materials of the shots at times.
MOTHRA 3's tokusatsu was filmed by Kenji Suzuki, who relies too much on digital compositing in this film (almost as bad as GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS three years latter). This ruins good props and suits, particulaly King Ghidoah. Luckily, just like the first film in the trilogy, set pieces are ceated via the intecutting of musical numbers and the monster action.
The best quality of the films is the handling of the kaiju's own personal drama. From the best handling of the death of a Mothra until GODZILLA: TOKYO SOS, to the tagic slaying of a samurai gone mad with Degarla, and the ambitious time traveling aspect of MOTHRA 3, the monster drama may not be as well mixed in and tied with the humans, but they have their own stories that while simple, do offer a little bit of poetry in their own right.
The other great quality to the trilogy is the new songs written for the Shobijin characters. In the first film, the compositions help give the film a light, Studio Ghibli sense of atmosphere at times. In the third film, it helps add a sense of levity to the action between Mothra and Ghidorah. The regular orchestrational pieces of the score are unrememberable, but the songs are memorable and might even lend themselves well when paired with the operatic stylings of a composer like Shiro Sagisu.
In the end, the Mothra trilogy are some nice occasional watches of made-for-the-money movie making. Its very simple fare.
Mothra - 5/10
Mothra 2 - 4/10
Mothra 3 - 4/10