1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla is a film of great significance for its franchise and its genre. From a marketing standpoint, it was the first time that two previously unconnected daikaiju from the Toho bestiary were pitted in battle against each other; as such, it sets the tone for the next eleven years of Godzilla films far more than the earlier King Kong vs. Godzilla, which despite being the first of the "versus" films (or, if we want to be pedantic, the "ε―Ύ" films), doesn't feel of a piece with the rest of them. Mothra vs. Godzilla is the great act of world-building in the Godzilla franchise - it is like the Marvel universe films of 44 years later, drawing upon a scope that exists because of its inter-film continuity across stories.

Another point of significance is that it's the first Godzilla film which was mostly left alone by the American distributors, and in fact there would not again be a considerably re-jiggered Godzilla picture released in the States until the second series began in 1984. To compensate, Mothra vs. Godzilla boasts a whole mess of release titles: in '64, American International Pictures distributed it as Godzilla vs. The Thing, making a great marketing game out of hiding the identity of a monster too horrifying for words, even though Mothra had already been distributed. Many years later, as Toho began to assert its artistic control over the U.S. and international dubs of its movies, the film was rechristened Godzilla vs. Mothra, which ceased to be a remotely helpful name when another film with exactly that title was produced in 1992. It didn't make its American appearance until 1998, as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, while Mothra vs. Godzilla didn't finally appear in an English-friendly edition under its literal title until 2006. Because if there's one thing that should be true of watching movies about men in rubber suits punching each other, it's that they should be complicated to talk about.

The last and most important standpoint is aesthetic. This was the last time in the first generation of Godzilla movies that the monster would be treated with total gravity and seriousness; it was the last film for 20 years in which Godzilla was unabashedly a villain. That's undoubtedly why it's the last film that doesn't feel even slightly like it's marching on the road to kid friendly B-moviedom, and at least part of why it's also one of the absolute best of all daikaiju eiga; consensus tends tor rank it only behind the very first Godzilla, then ten years old and still the most earnest and adult of Japanese monster movies, and I will not buck consensus here. Mothra vs. Godzilla lacks the self-conscious thematic depth of Godzilla, but it's possible even better as a snugly-crafted thriller about giant creatures rampaging around the country (no cities get leveled in this go-round). It's the most exciting, entertaining of Toho's daikaiju eiga, I guess I mean to say, without the dramatic heft of Godzilla, though there's not much else I can say that would qualify as a flaw. It is the one single film I would recommend, almost without hesitation, if I was going to try and convert someone into a fan of the genre.

The film opens during a great typhoon - I have no idea if it was actual storm footage or special effects director Tsuburaya Eiji doing some especially exceptional work, or a combination - which leaves a coastal community devastated. The next morning, cocksure reporter Sakai Ichiro (Takarada Akira, the primary hero of Godzilla, returning to the series as a different character) and sassy rookie photographer Nakanishi Junko (Hoshi Yuriko) are on the scene immediately, to banter and quarrel, after the fashion of movie newspaperfolk throughout history. More concerned with taking great photos than capturing the news, Junko is captivated by a large, iridescent object (it's never specified exactly that this is a scale from Godzilla's hide, though that is what the bulk of fandom takes it to be), which quickly takes second billing to a giant egg drifting in on the tide.

The egg captures the attention of people from around Japan: the most important at present being a scientist named Miura (Koizumi Hiroshi), and Kumayama (Tajima Yoshifumi), an executive with Happy Enterprises, a company that has no clear business sector other than "make money by any means necessary". This means buying the egg from the locals, who have claimed it as right of salvage, and this puts Happy Enterprises in direct opposition to the Twin Fairies (Ito Emi and Ito Yumi, trapped in costumes that make them look like bipedal cupcakes), who we last saw in Mothra, begging the world not to turn Infant Island into a radioactive wasteland. Apparently that happened anyway, and the giant egg at the center of so many hopes and dreams is holding the next generation of Infant Island's protector, the giant moth Mothra. In the meanwhile, the current incarnation of Mothra is headed to Japan to retrieve her offspring. None of this matters much at all to Happy Enterprises' venal head, Torahata (Sahara Kenji), who is planning on building a (presumably short-lived) theme park around the egg, and he and Kumayama respond to the Twin Fairies' entreaties with limitless contempt.

Absolutely none of this turns out to matter, though, as becomes violently clear when something else washed up in the typhoon wakes up and bursts out of the beach with all the fury of symbolic nuclear annihilation - Godzilla, unseen since he lost a battle to King Kong and was thrown into the sea, has come back, and he is grumpy as hell. There aren't cities for him to level, but there's still plenty of human life to be ruined, and the three heroes - Sakai, Junko, and Miura - swiftly conclude that the best chance Japan has to survive this latest onslaught is by pleading with Mothra (through the Twin Fairies) to battle Godzilla on their behalf. This, unfortunately, requires proving to Mothra that Japan oughtn't be wiped from the map for its crimes against nature. And even when that hurdle is cleared, the question remains: how can even a very giant moth fight a fire-breathing dinosaur the size of a skyscraper?

There are a lot of reasons why Mothra vs. Godzilla works, but here's one that isn't as obvious: the human element of the plot is unusually clean and focused, having very little to do with anything outside of the central issue of the very large animals promised in the title. One could just as easily argue that this is a flaw, and that the best of the daikaiju eiga are when they present rich human stories playing out against the agony of death and destruction. Certainly, we're not given reason to "care" about anything that happens: neither Sakai nor Junko is given much of an inner life or aspirations that rise above "we have an amazing news story right here, let's fight to survive long enough to tell it". Kumayama, weirdly enough, does have something of an inner life, but he's the bumbling villainous sidekick, right down to his silly little mustache, and surely we're not interested in him.

I find, though, that even if the human figures aren't terribly compelling dramatically, they're still pretty terrific bystanders to the monster action, and this is after all what they need to be for the film to triumph on a mechanical level. The acting, while it's not really special, is certainly good in almost every regard, with Takarada and Hoshi both being a great deal of fun to watch. Largely on their backs, Mothra vs. Godzilla hits the sweet spot of being bouncy and playful throughout without seeming fake and trivial - it is the best marriage of lightness and genuine impact in the franchise, and the first time that Honda Ishirō, a director better suited to the more serious side of giant rubber monsters, was able to completely nail a more flighty, high-spirited tone without feeling like he was faking it.

More importantly, Honda maintained the sincerity that marks all the best of his tokusatsu films: unlike so many Godzilla films to follow it, Mothra vs. Godzilla takes seriously its mission to depict giant monsters slugging it out with thoughtfulness and good craftsmanship. Some of the absolute best moments of kaiju action ever filmed are found here, particularly in the last battle, between Godzilla and twin Mothra larvae - something that should be absolutely the dumbest thing ever attempted, when you think about it, but Tsuburaya makes something completely magical out of it. Regardless of the at-times rattiness of the larvae props. The scene in which they attack Godzilla with silk spinnerets is a real miracle of choreography, well-placed emphasis in the editing, and a really fantastic moment of performance by Nakajima Haruo in the Godzilla suit: after spending the whole movie playing a more overtly animal Godzilla than he was in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima's final moments wrapped in a cocoon, flailing with distinctly anthropomorphised rage and frustration, should be discordant, but instead, it's one of my very favorite scenes in Godzilla's onscreen history. It's the first time since the dozing Godzilla on the seafloor in the '54 movie where the giant lizard's physical language is so empathetic and real, and a good way to usher in the more sympathetic incarnation of the character in the films that followed.

Still: there's a lot of distinctly animal rage in the fighting, which is surprisingly excellent, given that it all involves a man in a dinosaur suit and a big robotic moth puppet. Part of it is that the new Mothra prop is pretty unbelievably fantastic, especially compared the cute stuffed toy feeling of the one used in Mothra: there's something especially insect-like to the way its legs and head move (but something especially bat-like about the way it flies; can't have everything), the facial features are excitingly alien, and the colors are subdued enough to make it seem more like a dangerous giant thing than a plush friend to all children. It's enough to make me quite forget that this is by no means my favorite Godzilla suit, though it's well-regarded among fans: from straight on, his face looks puffy and cross-eyed, and he has been given totally unacceptable grey eyebrows. And I'm not in love with the longer, thicker tail, but the weight and shape of the body are certainly strong, so there's that.

The other thing that works really well about the fighting footage is that, uncharacteristically, it's been sped-up: whereas Tsuburaya typically filmed effects in slow-motion to make them seem more realistic, in this case the battles between Godzilla and the mature Mothra are fast and frenzied. It adds quite a lot of viciousness to the proceedings overall, and results in a much more exciting sort of fight scene than the typical theatricality in the later monster battles. Aided by Ifukube Akira's much lusher orchestrations of the Mothra and Godzilla themes he'd developed in previous films, the whole thing has much grander scope and sense of spectacle than any daikaiju eiga before it, and considerably more craftsmanship than just about anything to follow. If we cast our eyes across the Pacific, there's even more reason to love it in the American cut - the only time, for my money, that the Japanese version of a Godzilla film is arguably less effective than its U.S. counterpart. There's a sequence involving the U.S. Navy attacking Godzilla, shot by Toho (I assume as a sop to American jingoism), that 's every bit as good as the rest of the action in the film, and at only the smallest detriment to its overall pacing (though the flow of scenes works better in the Japanese version). It's beautifully lit and impressively ambitious, and includes some of the best military miniatures in the franchise.

Overall, it's just a damn exciting popcorn action movie. No doubt, that's a step down in terms of cinematic artfulness from the profundity of Godzilla and Honda's excellent employment of horror iconography, but still and all, it's as much fun as any movie about giant monsters ever has been, from any period and any country. And perhaps, as far as giant monsters are concerned, a fun time is the most important part, anyway.