On April 12, 1963, Eiji Tsuburaya followed through on a plan he’d long been mulling over. He opened the brand new, and much expanded, Tsuburaya Visual Effects Productions Co., Ltd. Tsuburaya took the role of president and director general. His wife served on the board of directors and his son was the chief accountant. Their new studio was a short walk from Toho. The plan was to broaden their purview and work on other television shows and movies, Japanese and foreign. Eiji’s other son joined the studio in a creative capacity, working a variety of jobs for the company. The studio’s first job was a Nikkatsu movie called My Enemy, the Sea.
Eiji Tsuburaya was still an intensely sedulous devotee to the art of special effects. Not only did he head this new studio but he stayed the head of Toho’s special effects department, flitting between the two as necessity demanded. After working on a light World War Two drama, Toho decided to reassemble the Golden Duo to work on something a little different – a horror film with the title Matango.
Matango has a distinctly Lovecraftian tone, which makes sense upon further exploration. The film was an adaptation of a short story by horror writer William Hope Hodgson, a major influence on Lovecraft. The story was first adapted by Masami Fukushima and Shinichi Hoshi. However upon receiving this script, past Toho writer Takeshi Kimura threw out their efforts. Takeshi Kimura, whose work on Rodan and The Mysterians had already garnered him a reputation as Toho’s headiest writer, took the opportunity to write what he viewed as his best script. The enigmatic and serious writer viewed his later work for Toho as being work for hire, and generally beneath him. He demonstrated this by adopting a pseudonym for these projects. He was known for his dark and gloomy personality and unwillingness to mingle with the other employees of Toho.
One supposed exchange between Kimura and fellow Toho writer Shinichi Sekizawa summed up their difference nicely. Kimura asked Sekizawa, “Do you really enjoy writing this?” Sekizawa replied, “Of course, I think it’s a lot of fun.” To which Kimura dourly said, “Not for me.”
It wasn’t a particularly complex effort for Tsuburaya. The monsters were even man-sized, eliminating the need for composite shots. There was only one model landscape, a distorted and surreal version of Tokyo’s skyline. The miniatures team did create some effective scenes of the characters’ boat traversing the ocean. The special effects team also created some new optical effects and a chemical compound to simulate swelling vegetation. A few efforts, but definitely less than on the average special effects film. Instead the film’s accomplishments are stylistic. The atmospheric shipwreck set and hallucinogenic forests are some of the best sets in a Toho film. They’re wonderfully tonal.
It’s all helped by the script. It’s easy to see why Takeshi Kimura thought of Matango as his best work. It’s a claustrophobic and tense film. The first swathe of the film is more psychological horror and thriller than anything. A group of disparate and oppositional boaters trying to survive at any odds. For most of the movie there’s a tense cooperation with machinations brewing beneath the surface. The plot starts to evolve even as one member of the crew becomes increasingly teratoid. The island the crew is trapped on is almost devoid of food, except for mushrooms. However the evidence on the decrepit ship they come across makes it clear that the mushrooms should not be consumed by humans. One by one the crew give in to temptation. The mushrooms taint their minds and start to cause them to mutate. At first the remaining men are merely struck by a nighttime fantod, fearing ominous shapes outside their windows. These shapes are mushroom men come to subsume the new humans. One crew member confronts the rest, espousing the power of the mushrooms. Half his face is fungoid. The other half rants about ancient psilocybin rituals. Takeshi Kimura had likely read the Life Magazine article written by R. Gordon Wasson on magic mushrooms, which introduced the concept to the popular vernacular. These sorts of ancient rituals blended nicely with the man-turned-mushroom horror of the William Hope Hodgson short story. Consumption of the island’s mushrooms even sparks a short hallucinogenic experience in one of the film’s characters.
“Old Man” Tsuburaya continued to burn the torch at both ends during this period. He was frequently found napping during his off time. He was sixty-two after all, and the hard work would eventually catch him up. Not before he did some of the studio’s best kaiju work yet. Of course it was right after his next Godzilla film that Eiji Tsuburaya really started spending more time away from Godzilla, pouring his efforts into another kaiju-featured project: the TV show Ultraman, which would eventually become one of Tsuburaya’s chief loves.
King Kong vs. Godzilla was such a massive success for the studio that it was all too clear a formula had been stumbled upon. Pitting Godzilla against another iconic monster might just bring the studio even more success. This time they decided to look closer to home for their icon, looking at the roster of monsters the studio had developed. Of these the most iconic was probably Mothra. So the studio got their team together and started production on Mothra vs. Godzilla. The lavish production is often thought of as the crowning glory of the kaiju films made during this period.
They turned to Shinichi Sekizawa to write the script. Shinichi Sekizawa, who studied animation with fellow classmate Osamu Tezuka, was now completely a part of Toho’s team. Sekizawa’s pre-Toho efforts are chiefly minor, or lost, with the exception of one film for Nikkatsu Studios. The film noir Take Aim at the Police Van is still considered a notable entry in Nikkatsu’s noir period; it was directed by Seijun Suzuki who is better known for Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter, and Gate of Flesh. Shinichi Sekizawa’s light and deft approach to kaiju films had won Toho over. Which was lucky, because initially they hired him as a preventative measure. He’d worked on a low-rent Godzilla knock-off called Agon: The Atomic Dragon. Toho shut down the production and hired Sekizawa to keep him from making any more copyright infringing works. Certainly his more entertainment driven approach lined up nicely with Eiji Tsuburaya’s vision for the series. Ishirō Honda might have been less interested in creating child-friendly fun, but at the very least Sekizawa respected the challenge of creating iconic monsters with personalities. Sekizawa also did a pretty good job at weaving some thematics into his glossy, entertaining films. He was a natural choice for Mothra vs. Godzilla. He’d written the first Mothra movie, and he’d just made Toho more money than ever with King Kong vs. Godzilla. So he set to work.
Production started right away. The Godzilla suit they crafted for this film would go on to be an all-time favourite. They specifically built the suit around the physique of Haruo Nakajima leading to a more upright, human looking Godzilla. The suit was slender and flexible, and would go on to be used in a few movies, with only minor tinkering. Although the slightly more human MosuGoji perhaps best suits Godzilla in the later films, when he’s portrayed as more of a heroic figure, it still stands out as a bold new direction in Mothra vs. Godzilla. The Mothra the studio built was magnificent. Nearly ten feet long with a thirty-foot wingspan, the remote controlled behemoth looked better than ever.
The script Shinichi Sekizawa handed in was a clever one. The film starts with reporters examining the wreckage caused by a typhoon. They come across a floating giant egg amidst the floating building fragments and spume. When news of the egg gets out, it’s quickly purchased and moved by a company named Happy Enterprises. Our right-headed protagonists are naturally horrified by the desperate greed displayed by Japan’s business class. Even as Happy Enterprises discuss their plans for the egg they are interrupted by the Shobijin, the musical miniature twins from the first Mothra film. They try to dissuade the company from building a theme park around the massive egg. The Shobijin explain the egg is from “Mothra Island” and that it belongs to Mothra. The Shobijin unite with our protagonist and hope to rescue the egg.
All this is suddenly secondary when government tests on a beach wake up Godzilla. In a striking scene the massive Godzilla raises his spiny back out of the sand slowly and ominously. The terrifying daikaiju starts to menace nearby cities. The new hope is to convince Mothra (now notably not part of an alternate version of earth) to help defend Japan against Godzilla. At first the villagers on Mothra Island refuse, the Japanese government has damaged the island with atomic testing, and then stole their egg. However after a plea for basic human sympathy there is a screeching cry and Mothra emerges. This is Sekizawa’s chief clever wrinkle in Mothra vs. Godzilla; we see the versions of Mothra in reverse order. The first iteration of the loving kaiju is the fully-grown, airborne Mothra. In a violent fight Godzilla scorches and kills Mothra. The dying Moth alights on the egg. The egg then hatches two larvae, which proceed to defeat Godzilla. This reversal nicely differentiates Mothra vs. Godzilla from Mothra. The tropes associated with Mothra run the risk of being repetitive, and Sekizawa seems to have recognized and carefully avoided that situation, at least for the short-term.
The duel between Godzilla and the flying Mothra is one of the more unique fights in the kaiju canon. Eiji Tsuburaya and his cameraman, Sadamasa Arikawa, use a high-speed lens with the camera set to a strobe effect. It almost creates an in-camera stop-motion effect. The optical effects on display are some of the best ever created by Tsubraya’s team. The blue-screen travelling mattes (when you have to remove the shape of a moving object frame by frame), double printing (now known as double-exposure), and glass paintings (which allow you to layer portions of a matte painting) are generally seamless. The animation team outdid themselves when it came to Godzilla’s radioactive breath and glowing dorsal fins. This is all especially impressive given that there are more of these effects than ever before.
The film was released on April 29th of 1964. It did well enough in Japan. Its US release actually represented a milestone for Toho’s films. The American release renamed the film Godzilla vs. The Thing. It also marketed the film using some especially inaccurate and misleading advertisements. The trailers completely hid Mothra, instead hinting that Godzilla’s foe was a disgusting tentacled creature. Audiences were surprised to find a colourful Moth fighting the King of Monsters instead. While the American Marketing may have been misleading, the film itself was the most intact of any of Toho’s productions. Only a few minor scenes were edited out and no new footage was incorporated by American studios. Instead there was a scene shot in Japan that was only included in American releases, an assault on Godzilla by the American Navy.
The film also marks one of the only recorded disagreements between Ishirō Honda and Akira Ifukube. Ifukube thought Godzilla’s first assault would play better without music, but Honda disagreed. Rather than press the point Honda added stock music in during production without Ifukube’s knowledge. When the team watched the premiere, Ifukube mustered up an angry glare for Honda when he saw the scene.
The film started a new series of kaiju films for Toho. Now that they had come up with the idea of cross-over Toho films there was lots of new ground to break. After all they had four successful kaiju to call upon, three of which were incredibly iconic. They even had a few weird outliers, like Moguera, they could use if they really needed to. It was time to make the series pulpier, sillier, and more entertaining. Not only that but it was time to make Godzilla a hero.