Teaching with the weirdness: Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)



Honda, Ishiro dir.  Mosura tai Gojira (Mothra vs. Godzilla).  Toho Studios.  1964.  89 min.

A few months ago, a friend approached me about giving a guest lecture for his class on global SF.  He asked me to do a film screening and discussion as the class moved into finals crunch time.  I thought it would be fun, and set about looking for a suitable film to teach.  All of my usual suspects, however, were coming up just a bit too lengthy for the 90 minute class block.  Time for a challenge!  The film I eventually settled on was 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a semi-remake of 1961’s Mothra.  The class was about a month ago now, and I’ve had some time to ruminate on how things went, so I thought I’d write up a short post about the experience.  I want to talk a little bit about trying to use silly or strange materials in class, and getting students to engage seriously and critically with those texts.  Charge up that radiation breath, and let’s rampage through some model cities.  

First, a brief plot summary for those unfamiliar with this cinematic gem.  Like I said above, Mothra vs. Godzilla was an almost point-for-point remake of the original Mothra from three years prior, itself a kind of spin on King Kong.  After a violent storm, a colossal egg is washed ashore in a small coastal town in Japan.  The egg is swiftly bought up by slimy capitalists looking to turn it into an amusement attraction.  Our heroes, two newspaper reporters and the scientist who was trying to study the egg before it was bought, keep pursuing the investors in the hopes of learning more about the egg.  In so doing, they meet twin fairy maidens from Infant Island (played by the pop twin duo The Peanuts, Itou Emi and Yumi) who have come to demand the capitalists return the egg to its home on Infant Island.  The capitalists — being the greedy caricatures they are — refuse, and the tiny maidens return dejected and bitter.

Soon after, for apparently no reason whatsoever, Godzilla arises from underneath the beach where the egg originally washed ashore and, as Godzilla does, starts lumbering inland, destroying everything in its path.  The reporters and scientist go to Infant Island to beg their help, and after an initially cold reception by the islanders, The Peanuts and Mothra herself accompany them back to Japan to save the egg from Godzilla.  Mothra gives her life to fight Godzilla and hold it off long enough that the egg can hatch into twin larvae, which eventually finish off Godzilla by encasing it in sticky silk and sending it tumbling into the ocean.  The capitalists, meanwhile, are killed when one shoots the other to claim all the money, and then is crushed by a collapsing building knocked over by Godzilla.  The Japanese promise The Peanuts that they will work toward a future free of misunderstanding between their cultures, and the fairy maidens ride the larvae off into the sunset back to Infant Island.

I could tell as the students watched the film that they thought it was goofy and campy, which was precisely the point of showing it to them.  They had fun, as I had hoped they would, though I could tell none of them were thinking about it too hard beyond, “Well that was weird.”  Still, I think weirdness is a wonderfully productive teaching tool.  When we’re confronted with weirdness, I think we have an instinctive reaction to try to explain it, one that combines with the alien unfamiliarity of the text to force us to approach things in ways we might not normally.  Weirdness also acts as a great leveler for everyone: we all thought that was bizarre, nobody has an airtight explanation for it, and so we’re all starting off on the same foot.

Trying to approach something extremely weird can be disorienting, though, and that confusion can sap a lot of willingness to speak up.  Nobody wants to look foolish in front of their classmates, after all, and I think that fear applies equally to not knowing what the “right” answer is as well as to engaging too earnestly with something that one’s peers aren’t taking seriously.  I’ve bashed into that wall before, like back when I was teaching my own sci-fi class, and so one of my personal goals for teaching this class was to try to find a way to get people talking more and get discussion going.  I decided this time to do a lot more heavy lifting in terms of laying initial groundwork.  I spent about 10 minutes giving a capsule history of the Godzilla franchise, as well as the contemporary socio-political climate of Japan in 1964.  I hoped this would give us a few bits of shared language to toss around, as well as get them playing that mental game of “spot the politics” as they reviewed the film in their mind.  After all, the instructor wouldn’t bring up Japan’s nascent nuclear power industry if it wasn’t in the movie somewhere, right?

After spelling out a lot of contextual points for them, I opened it up to the class bit by bit.  First, I asked for students to summarize the plot of the film out loud for their classmates, so that they could remember what they saw a week before and I could see what they found salient and what they missed.  An incredibly fortunate thing happened when I did this: a more visually-inclined student asked to use the whiteboard as they summarized.  I’d been planning on writing key characters on the board as they came up in the students’ summaries, but up comes this student and does it for me!  We would come back to this student’s diagram of the film again and again throughout the discussion (something that made me note to myself that I need to start incorporating diagrams like this more often), and the fact that a student wrote it all out — in much better handwriting than mine, I might add — gave it a bit more cachet in their peers’ eyes than it might have had had I done it.

I started off discussion with a very simple question: why did Godzilla appear?  Straightforward questions like this, in my mind, help communicate to students that these texts are convoluted, often self-contradictory, and not easy to analyze.  They also keep the students grounded in the text itself, rather than abstracting out to more comfortable conceptual territory that isn’t necessarily connected to the material at hand.  A favorite tactic of mine that I picked up back in coursework is looking at a particularly wonky passage or scene, then just asking the students, “What is going on here?”  It pushes us toward identifying key elements within the text that we can connect to each other and drill deeper on.  I did the same here.  I also split the class in half and asked one half to identify the “good guys” in the film, and one half to identify the “bad guys”.  I wanted to get them comfortable with putting out readings of the film with “safer” questions, which they could discuss with a smaller group of their peers to avoid embarrassment.  Why are these characters good/bad, and what specific evidence can you point to in the film text to support that reading?  This exercise signaled to the students what I was looking for in more general readings of the film (i.e. textual evidence), got them warmed up for pushing past the surface strangeness and into the idea that maybe there’s more to this film than meets the eye, and gave them some more key terms to anchor the reading we would eventually make of why Godzilla was here and what that told us the film was trying to say.  In other words, it became a sub-point of their later reading.

That reading eventually came around to the idea that Godzilla represented the perils of the military-industrial complex sapping the spiritual purity of modern society, and that humanist scientific endeavor could save us.  A really interesting change in classroom atmosphere came about as we got closer and closer to this reading.  Everyone’s expressions started to change as we got into the idea that, oh, maybe there are some geopolitical and historical concerns underlying this film, concerns that have echoes today.  When we analyzed the brownface, “tribal”/”primitive” inhabitants of Infant Island, for example, and looked at the references to Japanese imperial activity in southeast Asia, the room suddenly grew quieter as the students saw how a contemporary ambivalence about wartime guilt might have contributed to the weird discordance in the scene.  Similarly, when we got to the idea that Godzilla might be appearing from under this specific beach (which is slated for development as a high-tech, possibly nuclear, industrial zone) to signify the perils of environmental destruction in the name of industrialization, there was a similar moment of “Ooohhhh” that I could see in a few students’ eyes.  It was really rewarding.

In sum, I think this class was largely successful in achieving the goal I’d set out in planning it, which was to move the students toward thinking about the socio-historical specificity that underlies science-fiction texts and convince them that they could bring just as much rigor to their thinking about “fluff” texts like this one as they could to more canonical/intellectual sci-fi texts and be rewarded for doing so.  For me, it was (as mentioned) a way to get students to be willing to engage with a strange text, as well as a chance to dip my toes into some material I hadn’t worked with before.    Weirdness was a really productive pedagogical tool here — multi-faceted, challenging, and to the end, fun.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s