Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Beauties of Infant Island: A Look Back at the Shobijin and the Women Who Played Them

In 1961 Toho studios released MOTHRA, one of their biggest, most expensive, and fanciful daikaiju epics. An impressive production on all fronts, the film is now regarded as a classic of Japanese science fiction. One of the most famous aspects of that unique fantasy spectacle were its two twin telepathic fairies -- commonly referred to as The Shobijin. In addition to their mystical powers of telepathy, the Shobijin could translate monster speech(!). Over the course of the three eras, different actresses have played the tiny priestesses from Infant Island, and with alterations made to the characters. This article takes a look at the various personalities who hailed from that faraway, peace-loving island.

What's interesting to note is that some of the women that played the Mothra Fairies maintained that image of innocence out of costume; and others were barely recognizable, echoing a sex appeal that might of gotten them banished from their island home.

Born on April 1st, 1941, twins Emi (real name Hideyo) and Yumi (Tsukiko) Ito made their wildly successful singing career debut in February of 1959. The two were discernible by Yumi's moles on her temples beside her left and right eyes (her sister later added her own). Calling themselves The Peanuts, their popularity led to a slew of albums with songs running the gamut of pop, rock, folk and Christmas tunes. They were so well known, The Peanuts became singing sensations all over Europe, and even made appearances on American television variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show (see insert) in 1966. The Ito sisters began appearing in movies not long after they began singing professionally; and for virtually every major studio in Japan. 

Of all the motion pictures they appeared in, Toho's classic daikaiju fantasy spectacular MOTHRA (1961) is among the duos most famous works. Their roles set the standard for the handful of actresses that played twin fairies in later productions. The 'Song of Mothra' became a mainstay of the series, and was a popular tune outside of Japan. Earlier roles for The Peanuts were cameos, but for the production of MOTHRA, they had a much bigger part. They had to adjust around their music schedule, not to mention they had their own variety show, Soap Bubble Holiday, was in the works. It debuted in June of 1961. MOTHRA hit theaters in Japan the following month on July 30th, 1961.

While they will always be famous in their native country for their extraordinary singing prowess, when one mentions 'The Peanuts' on these shores, or Infant Island Fairies, the two tiny twin songstresses immediately come to mind. Their memorable synchronized line readings, elaborate wardrobe and vocal prowess graced two other Toho monster movies -- MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964) and GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (1964). They appeared in cameo appearances in a few other Toho movies before ending their film careers altogether. So when GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (GODZILLA, EBIRAH, MOTHRA: BIG DUEL IN THE SOUTH SEAS [1967]) rolled around, a new duo of exotic island priestesses was needed. Thus Yoko and Yuko Okada became the new Showa Shobijin.

Another singing duo, the Okada sisters, or the Bambi Pair (born in April of 1944), took over for The Peanuts in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1967). They weren't given much to do in this entry in the long running monster series. They sing a couple songs, and barely interact with the main cast members. Their voices are a bit deeper than the Ito sisters. Outside of some rare, vintage Japanese articles, little is known about them. 

In 2011, the elusive Yoko Okada (her sister Yuko has passed away) made an appearance at a 2011 Birth of Mothra Festival (see above insert) along with actor Koizumi Hiroshi (MOTHRA, MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, GHIDORAH, etc), and SPX director Koichi Kawakita. It was also the last monster film of Toho's Showa series to feature either Infant Island, or the Shobijin. It would be 25 years before Mothra and her mythology would surface in another movie of this sort.

Going back to The Peanuts, they retired from their singing career with a farewell concert tour that ran from March 21st to April 5th, 1975. Some of the songs among the set included American hit 'Proud Mary' and German favorite 'Danke Schoen'. Emi Ito passed away from cancer on June 15th, 2012 at age 71 (her ex-husband Kenji Sawada at left with surviving sister Yumi) Her sister never married.

The Peanuts are the classic template by which the others followed. It's difficult to imagine a movie featuring the iconic Mothra without them, or vice versa.

Imamura and Osawa performing the Mothra Song on a TV show
For 1992s GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, the Shobijin were now known as The Cosmos. Not limited to Infant Island, the Mothra mythology was rewritten to give the insect god and her two fairies an even more fantastical background. The Heisei Shobijin were played by Toho's 1991 Cinderella Beauty Contest winner Keiko Imamura, and Jury Prize winner Sayaka Osawa. The former, born in January of 1974, had a healthy television career with relatively few movie roles. Imamura was also a voice actress for various anime series's. Upon marrying in 2009, her showbiz career halted.

Osawa's career followed a similar trajectory (see insert; top pic with Megumi Odaka at right). Born in 1973, she got roles in TV shows, a handful of movies (including all the Heisei Godzilla movies from GODZILLA VS MOTHRA onward), and stage performances. Her role as one half of the Cosmos was her big screen debut. Osawa won the Best Newcomer award at Japan's Academy Awards ceremony in 1993, and remained active in the entertainment industry at least up to 2011. She married in 2004.

Both actresses reprised their Cosmos roles, albeit briefly, in the awful, but monster packed GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994).

With the 90s Heisei Godzilla and Mothra tussle proving such a huge box office success, a trilogy of Mothra films were planned once Godzilla was put out to pasture in 1995. The giant moths solo series reinvented the Fairies and their mythology yet again. This new series was geared even more towards children. Now called the Elias, they no longer synchronize their speech, and a third member was added, but this new addition was villainous. Overall, the MOTHRA trilogy is bristling with color and Koichi Kawakita's patented transforming monsters and laser beam battles, but is uniformly chintzy and terrible.

Having acted in television and commercials (including one for KFC!) since 1993, the beautiful Megumi "Meg" Kobayashi played Elias Fairy Moll. Born in 1977, her modeling career began in 1990, and a singing career followed a few years later. Kobayashi appeared in the remaining Mothra trilogy, and in GAMERA: LITTLE BRAVES in 2006. There is at least one other Megumi Kobayashi; a bosomy beauty, and sexy swimsuit model born in 1983.

Yamaguchi Sayaka played opposite Kobayashi in the Mothra movies as the sister Elias named Lora. A different actress essayed the role in the third picture. Born in 1980, she has worked in television, TV commercials, stage, screen, and still acts today. Like many other actresses, she has had a singing career that yielded several singles between the years 1998-2001.

Misato Tate (see insert) replaced Sayaka as Lora in MOTHRA 3 (1999). Another television alum, she remains active there while her film career has seemingly stalled. She has also worked for the DDT Pro Wrestling organization as a ring girl.

The evil Elias, Belvera, was played by Hano Masanori. The eldest of the cast, she was born in 1968. TV, stage work, and a three year stint as a singer (1991-1993) are among her resume. Like her co-stars in the Mothra trilogy, her film work was limited after finishing up the Toho monster series.

The stunning Nonami Maho wasn't one of the Mothra Fairies, but she did play a princess in the second entry of the late 90s series. She was 26 years old when she won Toho's Cinderella prize in 1996, making her movie debut in REBIRTH OF MOTHRA 2, aka MOTHRA 2: BATTLE UNDER THE SEA (1997). Unlike the main actresses of that series, Nonami has kept busy within the entertainment industry. Winning numerous awards, as well as critical accolades, she is still acting today.

A sort of Shobijin, or homage (or whatever you want to call it) to the mythos made its first Millennium appearance in Shusuke Kaneko's GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTER ALL-OUT ATTACK in 2001. Maeda Ai (at left; born in 1983) and Maeda Aki (at right; born in 1985) played the human-sized sisters. They're in the film for mere seconds, but it's assumed this was Kaneko's ode to the cinematic legend. Considering his radical interpretation of a Godzilla movie, it's only natural he'd alter this area, too. Both actresses also appeared together in both BATTLE ROYALE movies from 2000 and 2003 respectively. Both have had busy careers in the entertainment industry.

After that ambiguous, fleeting appearance, the two Infant Island Fairies officially returned in Maasaki Tezuka's GODZILLA X MOTHRA X MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO SOS in 2003. The twin angle was dropped at this point. They might of been synchronized and wore the same clothes, but Chihiro Otsuka (Hio) and Nagasawa Masami (Mana) looked nothing like each other. The official Shobijin Fairies of the Millennium series, both actresses essayed the roles as Mothra's priestesses in two films -- the other being GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004); the latter of which was basically a walk-on.

Chihiro (front) and Nagasawa in the Mothra Song music video for GXMXMG:TOKYO SOS (2003)

Chihiro Otsuka was the Jury Prize winner at Toho's 2000 Cinderella Beauty Contest. Her co-star, Nagasawa won the Grand Prix. Born in 1986, the athletic Chihiro Otsuka has had a varied, energetic career on stage and screen. Her theater work includes the musical 'Dance of the Vampires', a stage version of Polanski's 1967 film. Chihiro was in both the 2006 and 2009 Japanese stage productions. She had a brief stint in the music world beginning in 2007.

Nagasawa Masami continues to act in the entertainment medium on television and the big screen with an ever growing list of movies, TV shows and commercials. Additionally, Nagasawa has amassed two dozen awards for her work in the industry. She is one of the most successful of the latter period starlets to have appeared in giant monster movies.

The Peanuts will likely remain the most famous, the most popular, the most successful, and the most fondly remembered of the Shobijin portrayals by fans. Some of the others had extraordinary careers, while some seem to have quit the business altogether. Should Mothra appear onscreen again, it will be interesting to see what is done next with the mythology of that faraway fantasy island and its miniscule maidens. 
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