My expertise on the daikaiju eiga of the 1950s, extends only as far as what I've written and watched over the course of this marathon of Toho kaiju, and I should thus be careful around definitive statements, but seriously: 1961's Mothra absolutely has to be the flat-out weirdest of the first-wave kaiju films (by which I mean, the ones preceding Godzilla's return after a seven-year absence in widescreen and color with King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962). Though that might be revealing a certain bias that favors normalising Western pop culture. Let us instead say that Mothra is patently the most thoroughly and essentially Japanese of the pre-'62 kaiju films, the first one that Toho Films released that isn't basically just a variant on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The giant monster in this case isn't one more dinosaur-like being, an ancient creature revived after millions of years of hiding - it's the protector god of a small Pacific island brought to life to avenge the theft of the twin fairies (Ito Emi and Ito Yumi), 12-inch spirits who act as conduits between the island's natural elements and its human inhabitants. Every single word of that phrase makes it aggressively clear that we're someplace very different from "big damn lizard that's basically a giant allosaur, but don't call it that, knocks down a city".

For that reason, I am tempted to somewhat overvalue Mothra; it has a spectacularly unique energy that makes it easy to call it virtually the equal to Rodan, though cold honesty demands that I admit that, where Rodan is an almost perfect version of what it is, Mothra is a strange and imbalanced mess. Specifically, it takes forever and a day to get going, and it spends a lot of time trying to decide what story it wants to tell before committing to being a weird inversion of King Kong. First, we have to bear witness to the case of the Daini-Gen'you-Maru, a cargo ship that's run aground during a powerful typhoon on Infant Island, an uninhabited site for nuclear tests by the great superpower of Rolisica. But not too uninhabited! Days later, the survivors of the shipwreck are found in good health and without a drop of radiation poisoning between them, which they credit to the food given to them by the natives of the island, who aren't supposed to exist.

When this story hits Japan, thanks to the efforts of reporter Fukuda Senichiro (Frankie Sakai) and photographer Hanamura Michi (Kagawa Kyoko), the Rolisican businessman Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito, an American born of Japanese descent) immediately sponsors a Rolisican-Japanese scientific venture to the island, in the hopes of finding this lost civilisation. Among the many people who ship off, the only one who'll matter into the next act is anthropological linguist Dr. Chujo Shinichi (Koizumi Hiroshi), and Fukuda, who managed to sneak aboard in defiance of Nelson's "no media!" rule. Upon their arrival, they find Infant Island to be a magnificent wonderland of unknown plants, and the twin fairies to be reasonably friendly, once they've managed to communicate to the visiting humans their desire that the island should stop having so many bombs detonated on it. Rolisica agrees, but Nelson already has bigger plans: he's going to steal the fairies to be the main attraction at his Tokyo nightclub. The night of their first show, two things happen: the fairies perform a song, "Mosura No Uta", which seems to be directly reflected back on Infant Island, in a ritualistic dance performed by the human islanders in front of a gigantic egg. The other thing is that Fukuda, Chujo, and Hanamura discover that they can communicate with the fairies through telepathy, and thus it is that they become the first to know that the fairies' abduction has caused the islanders to waking the sleeping Mothra, to cross oceans if necessary to rescue the twins.

That's a really streamlined version of a really rattletrap opening half, which is stretched-out and drunk on random ideas in both the 101-minute Japanese cut of the film as well as an English dub that removes 10 minutes by snugging scenes up, but doesn't change the story structure much to speak of (it was, at that point, the most invisible localisation done to any Toho daikaiju eiga). From this point, with the benefit of a kaiju to focus the drama upon, Mothra takes quite a bit more shape and its pace picks up, but it's still completely random in the way it shuffles human plot elements around: it never comes close to deciding whether Fukuda or Chujo is the protagonist (and here, we see another quintessentially non-American element: Fukuda, a bumbling fat guy, is never reduced to the limited role of comic relief), partially because none of them end up serving as adversary to the film's villain, Nelson. It's a crazy and fascinating mess of a story, and if it never seems that way after the rather draggy island scenes, I think that's due largely to the ebullience with which screenwriter Sekizawa Shinichi (the writer also of Varan, three years earlier, though it was only here that he came into his own as Toho's primary writer of dizzy, lightweight kaiju eiga) throws events at us, more concerned with keeping things upbeat and fanciful than with anything in the same neighborhood as social commentary or serious intensity.

Faced with such an unmistakably frivolous script, Hondo Ishirō was obliged to adjust his ordinarily portentous directing to match, and he and cinematographer Koizumi Hajime accordingly fill the movie with bright colors and glossy Tohoscope shots that emphasis the wonder and charm of the material, rather than the destruction and impact of Mothra's rampage (despite this having, in a walk, the most gorgeously detailed models that Toho had yet put in any of its movies). Koseki Yuji's score follows suit, feinting in the direction of profundity but mostly serving to keep time with the action (and his "Mosura No Uta" is, anyway, a complete masterpiece). In America, this was marketed as a kids' movie; the Japanese version (and the American version, for that matter) isn't quite that fluffy, but it's more of an overtly fun movie than any daikaiju eiga to that point, carefully making sure that the human characters, no matter how well-acted or written, remain playful stock types (and there's some pretty good acting here: all three of the leads are pretty fantastic, Ito is a wonderful villain, and Shimura Takashi gets to cut loose in the most silly performance I have ever seen that reliably serious, reflective actor give, as Fukuda's easily-annoyed newspaper editor), limiting any sense that the city damage is stripped of real violence or impact, and making the second version of Mothra the most almighty fucking cutest kaiju I have ever seen.

Basically, Mothra turns into a big plush moth. And she (custom holds Mothra, uniquely among Toho daikaiju, to be female, which is made clearer in her later appearances, though not this one) would never turn out to be the most technically impressive of the studio's monsters (Mothra appears more than any other character than Godzilla, and was the only one to have further solo outings after '62), but this version is uniquely dippy-looking. In a cute, playful way; but not in a way that is remotely compelling, cinematically. Her attack on the Rolisican metropolis New Kirk City - if it wasn't yet obvious what nation Rolisica is a stand-in for, I trust it is now - is goofy even by this film's standards, and impossible to take seriously.

In any other context, I'd say that makes Mothra so bad it's good, but that's just not the case here. For all its daftness, this is kind of a terrific film on its own terms, allowing that its terms are very much unlike the daikaiju eiga tha preceded it and mostly unlike the ones to follow. Honestly, I still haven't figured out what those terms are. I just know that there's a lot of great imagery (the haunting sight of Mothra in a cocoon in the ruins of Tokyo Tower is the dreamiest moment of a largely hallucinatory whole), and Honda, miles out of his comfort zone, did a terrific job of bringing a sense of pop-colored giddiness to a genre that never would have seemed like that kind of manic eye candy was going to be a good fit. But everything about Mothra feels somehow otherworldly and inexplicable, and I think its completely off-kilter visual style ends up suiting it well. It is a profoundly strange and alien film, and its commitment to seeing that through to the end in every aspect of its aesthetic and plot makes it work almost in spite of how slipshod it is as an actual work of narrative cinema.