The name "Mothra" is the suffixation of "-ra" to the English word "moth"; since the Japanese language does not have dental fricatives, it is approximated "Mosura" in Japanese. The “ra” suffix follows the precedent set by “Gojira”, which in turn is derived from kujira (鯨（クジラ), the Japanese word for “whale,” to indicate the character’s enormous size.
During its promotion of Mothra vs. Godzilla for the American market, American International Pictures entitled the movie Godzilla vs. the Thing, probably to avoid legal action from Colombia Pictures, which had released the original Mothra.
Mothra was first conceived in the January 1961 serial The Luminous Fairies and Mothra by authors Shinichiro Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta, who had been commissioned by Toho to write the outline of a future film. The character was further developed by Shinichi Sekizawa, whose experiences of starving in the South Pacific islands during World War II prompted him to envision a movie featuring an island where mysterious events occurred.
In her 1961 debut, Mothra's adult form consisted of a wire-operated mechanical puppet, while the larva was a suitmation puppet operated by six stuntmen crawling in single file. In Mothra vs. Godzilla three years later, the adult Mothra puppet was modified with radio-controlled legs, while the larvae were portrayed via a combination of motor-driven props and hand puppets. The larval Mothra featured in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster remained largely unchanged from its previous appearance, though the color of its eyes was changed from blue to red. The adult Mothra prop featured in Mothra vs. Godzilla was reused in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, though previous heavy use had dulled its colors, frayed the fur on the head, and damaged the wings.
During the early Heisei era of Godzilla films, which ignored the continuity established in pre-1984 movies, several attempts were made to develop a Mothra standalone feature. Akira Murao wrote a screenplay in 1980 entitled Mothra vs. Bagan, which revolved around a shape-shifting dragon called Bagan who sought to destroy humanity for its abuse of the Earth's resources, only to be defeated by Mothra, the god of peace. The screenplay was revised by Kazuki Ōmori after the release of Godzilla vs. Biollante, though the project was ultimately scrapped by Toho, under the assumption that Mothra was a character born purely out of Japanese culture, and thus would have been difficult to market overseas unlike the more internationally recognized Godzilla. With the success of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Toho sought to continue the series' newfound profitability by reintroducing familiar monsters rather than inventing new ones. Mothra was chosen as Godzilla's next antagonist on account of the character's popularity with women, who constituted the majority of cinemagoers at the time. Special effects head Koichi Kawakita co-wrote a screenplay entitled Godzilla vs. Gigamoth in 1991, which would have pitted Mothra against Godzilla and an irradiated Mothra doppelganger called Gigamoth, though this was rejected early on, and replaced with the final plotline seen in the film Godzilla vs. Mothra. Kawakita's depiction of Mothra's adult form was given the ability to fire energy beams, which were rendered via optical effects, and the pollen dust emitted from its wings were given a sparkling effect not seen in prior movies. During the character's transformation from larva to adult, it was initially planned to have Mothra's unfolding wings rendered through CGI, though this was scrapped on account of it not looking "sensitive" enough. Although the movie was a financial success, the Mothra props were criticized by several authors, who noted that the adult Mothra's brighter colors made it look like a "plush toy", and that its wings flapped less gracefully than in previous incarnations, as they were made of heavy cloth. The Mothra puppet's immobile, chicken-like feet, and the lack of undulation in the larva prop's movements were also commented on as being inferior to the effects seen in 1960s Mothra movies. Criticism was also leveled at Mothra's altered origin story, which portrayed her as an extraterrestrial, thus dampening the character's motivation for protecting Earth. The character's newfound popularity nevertheless prompted Toho to produce Rebirth of Mothra in 1996.
For Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, director Shūsuke Kaneko had originally planned on using Anguirus as one of Godzilla's antagonists, but was pressured by Toho chairman Isao Matsuoka to use the more recognizable and profitable Mothra, as the previous film in the franchise, Godzilla x Megaguirus, which featured an original and unfamiliar antagonist, was a box office and critical failure.
For 2003's Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., special effects director Eiichi Asada sought to model Mothra directly on her appearance the original 1961 film, and to keep optical effects to a minimum. As with Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah, the adult Mothra was given mobile legs, though they were made to constantly move, as it was felt that the prop stopped looking realistic once they became immobile. Creature designer Shinichi Wakasa had initially wanted Mothra's wings to have the angular design seen in Rebirth of Mothra II, though the prop was ultimately given the wing shape seen in the 1960s movies.
Mothra is usually accompanied by tiny twin female fairies, which Shinichi Sekizawa termed Shobijin, meaning "little beauties". The original draft for Mothra called for four fairies, though Sekizawa reduced the number to two, as twins were comparatively rare in Japan, thus adding to the characters' mystique. Toho also sought to reinforce its links with Columbia Pictures, by featuring the singing duo The Peanuts, who had been popularized in America by Colombia Records. Yūji Koseki composed the song Mosura no uta ("Song of Mothra") for the fairies to sing when summoning Mothra. The song was originally sung in Malay, but there is also a later version, set to the same tune, sung in Japanese:
The Peanuts were given an additional song in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster entitled "Cry for Happiness", composed by Hiroshi Miyagawa. The Peanuts did not reprise their role in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and were replaced by the singing duo Pair Bambi.
In Godzilla vs. Mothra, the fairies are renamed the Cosmos, and are played by Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa. This casting move was criticized by Godzilla historian Steve Ryfle, who lamented the fact that the two actresses were not identical, and that their singing voices were "paper thin." According to Takao Okawara, the Cosmos scenes were among the hardest scenes he had ever filmed, as the actresses had to synchronize their movements without looking at each other.
In the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, Mothra Leo's fairies are called the Elias.
In Mothra, Mothra hatches from an egg on Infant Island after her priestesses are abducted by a Rosilican capitalist hoping to exploit them as media celebrities. The larval Mothra swims to Tokyo and cocoons herself around the Tokyo Tower. Upon reaching her adult form, Mothra flies to Rosilica's capital and causes widespread destruction until her priestesses are returned to her.
In Mothra vs. Godzilla, a Mothra egg appears on the coast of Japan, and is exploited as a tourist attraction. Mothra's priestesses attempt to negotiate the return of the egg to Infant Island, but are rebuffed. Godzilla attacks Japan, forcing humanity to beseech an embittered Mothra to intervene. Mothra dies fighting Godzilla, but the latter is defeated when two larvae emerge from the egg and encase Godzilla in a cocoon.
In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, it is revealed that only one of the larvae survived. The remaining larva attempts to convince Godzilla and Rodan to join forces with her in order to fight King Ghidorah, but the two monsters reject her proposal. Mothra is nearly killed attempting to fight Ghidorah alone, but is saved through the intervention of Godzilla and Rodan.
The larva ultimately gains adulthood in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, where she saves a group of slaves from an island base undergoing a self-destruct sequence.
Another larva appears in Destroy All Monsters, living alongside other monsters in Monsterland. Along with the other monsters, Mothra is briefly enslaved by the Kilaaks, who force her to attack Beijing and later join Godzilla in the destruction of Tokyo. The Kilaaks' mind control is ultimately broken, and Mothra joins the other monsters in the final battle against King Ghidorah.
1992's Godzilla vs. Mothra portrays Mothra as a guardian of the Earth who presided over an advanced civilization over 12,000 years ago. When the civilization created a device designed to control the Earth's climate, the Earth responded by creating the black Mothra Battra, which Mothra defeated, but not before the civilization was wiped out. Mothra's egg is later discovered in 1993 on Infant Island by the Marutomo real estate agency, which seeks to exploit it and Mothra's priestesses for profit. The egg hatches during a fight between Godzilla and a resurrected Battra, and the larva later attacks Tokyo in order to save its priestesses. Mothra forms a cocoon around the National Diet Building, attains its adult form, then briefly fights Battra before joining forces with him in order to fight Godzilla. Battra dies in the attempt, and Mothra pledges to fulfill Battra's role in preventing a meteorite from devastating the Earth in 1999.
In Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Mothra becomes aware of SpaceGodzilla's advance towards Earth, and sends her priestesses to warn Earth of his arrival.
Rebirth of Mothra is separate to the Heisei continuity, and portrays Mothra as the last remaining member of a species of giant moths who guard the Elias' civilization. This civilization was destroyed millions of years ago by the dragon Desghidorah, whom Mothra defeated. Mothra lays an egg in modern times, but is too weak to fight Desghidorah once it returns. The egg hatches and the new Mothra, named Mothra Leo, goes to protect his mother, but sadly Mothra is killed by Desghidorah while Leo is still too weak to injure the dragon. Leo manages to kill Desghidorah after maturing. Unusually, Mothra Leo is male; while it is heavily implied that male individuals of Mothra's kind do exist, Leo is the first male Mothra to make a physical appearance.
Leo returns in Rebirth of Mothra II, where he acquires a new and more powerful form in order to fight the pollution monster Dagahra.
In the final chapter of the trilogy, Rebirth of Mothra III, Leo is forced to return to the Cretaceous period in order to retroactively kill the prehistoric space dragon King Ghidorah.
In Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Mothra is portrayed as having been one of the three guardians of Yamato, originating 1,000 years before the events of the film. Initially an antagonist, Mothra was imprisoned in Lake Ikeda, only to be reawakened in 2001 to halt Godzilla's destruction of Tokyo. She is defeated, but transfers her spirit to King Ghidorah.
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. has the Mothra from the original 1961 film send her priestesses to demand that Japan dismantle the anti-Godzilla weapon Mechagodzilla or face destruction, as she considers the cyborg to be against the natural order, having been created using the bones of the first Godzilla. When the second Godzilla lands, Mothra attempts to fight the monster alongside Mechagodzilla, but is killed in the process. Two larvae hatch on Infant Island, and reach Tokyo in order to fight Godzilla, whom they encase in a cocoon, which is then transported into the ocean by Mechagodzilla.
Godzilla: Final Wars, which ignores the continuity of the previous film, establishes that Mothra protected the Earth 10,000 years ago from the cyborg Gigan. In the distant future, Gigan returns, under the control of the Xiliens, and is confronted by Mothra. In the ensuing battle, Mothra catches fire, but manages to kill Gigan by ramming into it and exploding. In one of the film's post-credits sequences, she is seen to have survived and is flying back to Infant Island.
In 2014, Legendary Pictures announced that they have acquired the rights to King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan from Toho to use in their MonsterVerse.
In the 2017 film Kong: Skull Island, Mothra appears in a series of cave paintings depicting other monsters that are known to exist. Mothra (1961)
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster (1964)
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Rebirth of Mothra (1996)
Rebirth of Mothra II (1997) (as Mothra Leo)
Rebirth of Mothra III (1998) (as Mothra Leo)
Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Kong: Skull Island (2017) (Cameo)
Godzilla Island (1997-1998)
Godzilla: Monster of Monsters (NES - 1988)
Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters (NES - 1991)
Kaijū-ō Godzilla / King of the Monsters, Godzilla (Game Boy - 1993)
Godzilla: Monster War / Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters (Super Famicom - 1994)
Godzilla Giant Monster March (Game Gear - 1995)
Godzilla Trading Battle (PlayStation - 1998)
Godzilla Generations: Maximum Impact (Dreamcast - 1999)
Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee (GCN, Xbox - 2002/2003)
Godzilla: Domination! (GBA - 2002)
Godzilla: Save the Earth (Xbox, PS2 - 2004)
Godzilla: Unleashed (Wii - 2007)
Godzilla Unleashed: Double Smash (NDS - 2007)
Godzilla: Unleashed (PS2 - 2007)
Godzilla: Daikaiju Battle Royale (Online game - 2012) as Mothra, Mothra Leo, Rainbow Mothra, and Aqua Mothra
Godzilla: The Game (PS3 - 2014 PS3 PS4 - 2015)
Godzilla 2000 (1996)
Godzilla at World's End (1998)
The Luminous Fairies and Mothra (serialized novel)
Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters (Comic - 2012)
Godzilla: Rulers of Earth (Comic - 2013)
Godzilla: Cataclysm (Comic - 2014)