Having killed off Godzilla in 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, sending the corpse off to America to be violated even further, Toho found itself in the unprecedented position of having no giant monster franchise to go along with a marketplace where giant monster movies were still doing pretty decent box office numbers in Japan. The good news was that Toho had a whole damn zoo of monsters for whom the rights had not been locked away in the deal with Tri-Star, any one of whom could be called up to serve as the star of a brand new movie. And it comes as no surprise that, in the search for a headlining monster who was neither Godzilla nor a robotic simulacrum of same, the execs would tap the two most popular and famous of their guest-star daikaiju: Mothra and King Ghidorah, the latter given a fairly extensive face-lift to serve as the villain of Rebirth of Mothra in 1996, the less than wholly apt title assigned in English to a film cleanly and plainly called just Mothra in Japanese. Somehow, this feels like the right juncture to mention that I've watched enough of these movies close enough in a row that I've begun thinking of the giant insect's name as "Mosura", owing not least to the flowing, rhythmic chant that puts it in yet another appearance in this picture, but I feel kind of racist whenever I say it out loud.

What, if any, connection this film has to the 1961 Mothra or any of the five films (at that point) in which the titular kaiju appeared as ally or enemy to Godzilla is unclear, though the characters seem quite baffled by the existence of a giant moth who acts as protector of Earth and the natural world, and that seems like something you wouldn't forget about after the first time it happened. So let's assume that this is a complete and total standalone, which ends up doing a lot of good to film anyway. Rebirth of Mothra, you see, was unambiguously conceived and made as a children's film, something that hadn't been true of the Godzilla films since the early 1970s. And while it is the case that many, perhaps most, adult fans of Godzilla can credit childhood (or adolescent, at least) enthusiasm for their affection for the series, there's a big difference between movies that are easiest to love when you are a child, and movies that actually expect that you are a child right at this moment. It takes some significant re-adjusting from Destoroyah, with its apocalyptic tone and frequent brutality, to get oneself in any kind of mindset to appreciate Rebirth of Mothra on any level; the clear severing of any ties with the Mothra last seen flying into space to save the world from an asteroid helps with that process somewhat.

Only somewhat, though. It's still odd to be thrust back into a story centered around children and family at this date, though Rebirth of Mothra does showcase the differences between Japanese and American children's entertainment, being as it's far less tacky and sweet than the film surely would have been if it were made on the other side of the Pacific. A case in point: almost at the very beginning, there's a scene of animals gawking in anthropomorphised horror at an earth-mover moving into their forest: a shot of squirrels looking out, a shot of a bird, all looking as aggrieved as possible for non-cartoon forest creatures, thanks to the magic of editing. And then there's a shot of the bird's nest being run over by the treads of the earth-mover, destroying its eggs. An American movie, no two ways about it (and even with a fully grown-up target audience), would have allowed that nest to escape destruction. That director Yoneda Okihiro (a former assistant of Kurosawa's, making his debut) and screenwriter Suetani Masumi would effectively open their movie with such a casually brutal moment speaks well of their willingness to have stakes of life and death that are not typically witnessed in American children's entertainment.

That earth-mover, anyway, belongs to a company developing land on some virgin island in the Japanese archipelago, where 65 million years ago the guardian spirit Mothra sealed away the extraterrestrial destroyer Desghidorah (which I gather is meant to be analogous to "Death Ghidorah") beneath the rocks. Taken by a fit of curiosity, one of the employees of that company, Goto (Nashimoto Kenjiro) salvages the seal pressed into the rock as they're blasted away, thinking it will make a good memento for his daughter.

It's Goto's family that we'll be mostly dealing with: his patient but long-suffering wife (Takahashi Hitomi) is starting to get very tired of his frequent absence (and in one chilling moment that passes by without comment, she screams at him for drinking alcohol in their sleeping children's room; one wonders what he might have drunkenly done in the past), and the genre-savvy will quickly note that we're looking at a film where a damaged family is rebuilt as a result of fighting adversity. Mostly, though the film is about the kids themselves: Taiki (Futami Kazuki) and his little sister Wakaba (Fujisawa Maya), who are chased by the tiny magical woman Belvera (Hano Aki), who wants to raise Desghidorah using the seal that Wakaba now wears as a necklace. They are aided and protected by the Elias, Moll (Kobayashi Megumi) and Lora (Yamaguchi Sayaka), this film's re-conceived version of the Twin Fairies of yore, who are sent as emissaries from Infant Island by Mothra, riding on the back of a smaller version of the moth goddess named Fairy, to stop Belvera, who proves to be their long-estranged sister.

Of course this all fails, since if Desghidorah isn't released, then there can be no battles between it and Mothra, which is patently the reason that we're all here, regardless of what age we are. But the Goto family remains the primary human agents helping the Elias and Mothra recover the seal, fight the monster, and learn important lessons about leaving the Earth's natural resources safe and sound, and the hard work it takes to fix a broken environment. Unless a moth goddess fixes it all for you in a few seconds, which kind of teaches exactly the wrong message about conservation.

It's all pleasant enough storytelling, though like its big siblings in the Godzilla franchise, Rebirth of Mothra has a hard time figuring out why we should care about our human protagonists, and this feeling is only amplified by the kid-flick reliance on having children as the main characters, in order to give the young viewers somebody to serve as their surrogate within the movie. It might even work on that level, but at the basic level of establishing conflict, it's a lot harder to take Desghidorah seriously as a threat powerful enough to destroy all life on Earth when it can be successfully resisted by a single Japanese family; conversely, it's outright impossible to still care about the Gotos' domestic situation when they're surrounded by giant moths and widespread destruction.

As is hardly uncommon, then, the film lives and dies not on its narrative or its humans, but on the staging of its monster action; and with effects director Kawakita Kochi having nothing more pressing to do with his time, he got the assignment, so that monster action is even pretty fantastic. Certainly, the battle between Mothra and Desghidorah is nothing shy of fantastic, the moth exploding a dam to set a trap for the three-headed beast in a manner that is creative, exciting, and excellently-staged using terrific models - the film's too inexpensive for urban action, but the forest settings look absolutely fantastic. The climax between Desghidorah and Mothra Leo, the son born of Mothra's egg as she lays dying from her wounds in the first battle, is in every way a step-down; but it's still solid, if unexceptional entertainment.

I'm ambivalent, generally speaking, about the monster designs: Desghidorah is fucking unbelievable, with grey and red details that make it look every bit the monster out of hell, its three heads topped by spikes and angles that look, if anything, even meaner than the already wonderful King Ghidorah of 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. And Desighidorah has forelimbs! It's amazing how much more of a legitimate animal and threat it seems just from being made a quadruped. I'm also smitten with Belvera's steed, a little dragon animatronic named Garugaru, with a broad, expressive face that looks way cuter than anything, but cuteness isn't a failure in this case.

The Mothras, though, aren't terribly exciting, with the Mothra Leo larva in particular standing out as clearly the worst larval Mothra in any film yet. The primary Mothra looks very much like the last one we saw, but somehow even more flocked and colorful, more like a toy - and as for the diminutive Fairy Mothra, that looks so much like a toy that the plot even calls it out. Leo is interesting if only for being the first significantly new revision to the basic monster design since it was introduced in 1961 (more green and white, less yellow, and the wings are reshaped), but doesn't really fix his mother's basic problem of looking more like a toy than an animal. I also can't help but be vexed that we needed a male Mothra in the first place, but that's a completely different argument.

Still, I've got to hand it to Kawakita: despite being made on a budget, Rebirth of Mothra really does look polished and as fully-realised as its Godzilla cousins, and my problems are almost exclusively with the design of the monsters, not the execution. Even the process shots look good, for the most part, and there are a lot of them, given the interactions between the Elias and the kids. There are slip-ups, like the horrendous fire backdrop when they sing their Mothra chant; it has something like a 4-per-second framerate, and it looks like they're doing karaoke in front of one of those Christmas yule log videos that's skipping. Moments like that are outliers, though, and mostly the film looks just as polished as anything else Kawakita had done, if not quite as ambitious.

It has the kaiju goods, then, and it doesn't even scrimp on the impact and violence of a "real" daikaiju eiga, despite being a kids' movie (the treatment of the Leo larva is genuinely unsettling). None of this counteracts the trivial storytelling, or the "set-up the camera and walk around in front of it" staging of virtually every human-based scene (the early sequence with Balvera and Garugaru tormenting the kids has a certain higher-level comic energy to it, though). It doesn't outright hold its audience in contempt, though it does suppose them to be somewhat undemanding and receptive to slack storytelling that states rather than demonstrates its stakes. But kids' movies have been a lot worse, and the action is good enough wipe at least some of the aimlessness of the human story from memory.