Guns and Butterflies; Maxine and Mothra

“Well, for instance in connection with The Deseret corpse and this mafioso you’re apparently also dating concurrently?”
“Who – Rocky Slagiatt? He’s some kind of suspect now? What do you mean, dating?”
“Well of course we assumed you and Mr. Slagiatt are…” Heidi by now with that trademark smirk all over her voice.
Maxine drops for a minute into one of Shawn’s visualizing exercises in which her Beretta, within easy reach, has been transformed into a colorful California butterfly dedicated, like Mothra, to purposes of peace. “Mr. Slagiatt has been helping me with an embezzlement beef, mutual trust here being of the essence, which I doubt would include ratting him out to the authorities, do you think, Heidi.”
(Pynchon, Bleeding Edge p. 228)

On the second-to-last page in chapter 20 of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Maxine is in the middle of a phone call from Heidi, when Heidi mentions that her then-boyfriend Detective Carmine Nozolli wants repayment for favors in the form of information on Rocky Slagiatt, one of Maxine’s contacts on the hashslingrz case. Heidi implies that Rocky is involved in shady business and that Maxine and Rocky are dating, and Maxine, annoyed at the suggestion, has to calm herself down using a technique proposed by her therapist, Shawn, in which she visualizes her gun as a California butterfly. Pynchon describes the butterfly as “dedicated, like Mothra, to purposes of peace” (Pynchon, 228). Mothra is famous in popular culture for being a giant moth that stars in Japanese monster movies, usually alongside Godzilla. Mothra is one of the most famous kaiju (Japanese for “strange creature” and a common term for giant monsters) created by the Japanese company Toho, and she has appeared in twelve films (of which I’ve personally seen eleven, but who’s counting?) including the original film in 1961, a trilogy of films in the late 1990s, and appearances in eight Godzilla films from 1964 through 2004. In general terms, her role is always as a keeper of peace, as the reference suggests, however the character’s history is slightly more complicated.

The Pynchon wiki was surprisingly unhelpful in this case, linking only to the Wikipedia page for Mothra and stating that there are other references to Toho kaiju in Pynchon’s work, but not listing any of them. There is a note of a reference to “goji berries,” but this turned out to be a dead end, as the etymology of the berries’ name has no relation to Gojira, the Japanese name for Godzilla. My go-to resource for all things Toho is the website Toho Kingdom, which, in addition to being one of the largest centers of fan activity for kaiju films, also maintains an extensive database on all things Toho, including films, actors, company staff, and monster biographies. The site’s database provides general synopses of Mothra’s portrayal, although my primary knowledge comes from the films themselves.

Of the twelve films Mothra has appeared in, ten of them would have been produced as of 2001, although only eight of them would have been distributed in the United States at that time. All of them were in distribution by 2013, however, so while the pop-culture interpretation of Mothra in Maxine’s time was only based on eight films, Pynchon’s understanding of the character may have been slightly different, although the additional four film appearances did not likely do much to change the character’s perception outside of kaiju enthusiasts.

When Maxine imagines her Beretta as a peaceful butterfly, the comparison to Mothra may at first appear to reaffirm the idea of a peaceful exercise designed to suppress Maxine’s urge to shoot Heidi, but the reference goes deeper than just that, and comparisons can be drawn between Mothra and the role of Maxine’s Beretta, as well as Maxine herself. While Mothra’s portrayal as a peaceful creature has been largely consistent, even across different film continuities, there are slight differences in the role she plays. For instance, in her first film, Mothra (1961), Mothra is stirred into attacking japan by an attack on her island and the abduction of her priestesses. She is not above causing destruction for the purpose of righting a wrong. Later on, in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Mothra acts as a mediator between the warring monsters Godzilla and Rodan, to get them to work together to defend the Earth from the space monster King Ghidorah, and leads the charge against the invader. In Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) Mothra’s primary purpose is restoring the balance and letting the dead rest in peace, as she threatens violence upon all of civilization if the bones of the original Godzilla are not returned to the sea.

Mothra is peaceful, but she can and will resort to violence when she deems it necessary. The comparison to a gun is fitting. After all, Mothra is a giant monster capable of destruction on a massive scale, but she only calls upon her immense power at the most critical of times. Maxine’s Beretta is also powerful and destructive, but Maxine, like Mothra, chooses to use it only when necessary. Having a gun gives Maxine an edge, the ability to sway events to turn out in her favor, but she doesn’t use it when she doesn’t feel she needs to. Heidi may be annoying, and her accusations may be insulting, but the proper response is not to reach for her gun. Maxine may be tempted to use the power of her Beretta to solve all her problems, but she uses Shawn’s exercise to remind herself that her Beretta’s power is not to be used at the spur of the moment, but only when, perhaps, its careful and strategic use might lead to peace in one form or another, suiting the imagined butterfly’s purposes.

Maxine herself shares other similarities with Mothra. The roles or righter of wrongs, mediator, and restorer of balance can be approximated in Maxine’s fraud investigation business, meetings with various contacts on both sides of the law, and desire to solve Lester Traipse’s murder. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that mentions of “an embezzlement case,” Rocky Slagiatt (one of Maxine’s contacts), and “the Deseret corpse” (Lester) are placed in conversation around the reference, summing up Maxine’s role and motivation in the novel. In addition, both characters are specialists that tend to be called upon by those in need. Mothra is often summoned from a deep sleep on her island by her priestesses, the inhabitants of the island, or the people of Japan to defend against giant monsters, just as Maxine is summoned from her normal, day-to-day life by Reg to investigate fraud at hashslingrz. Mothra is called upon as a savior because she, being a monster herself, can do battle with other monsters, and Maxine is only drawn into the web of conspiracy because, as a fraud investigator, she is qualified to take on hashslingrz.

While there is doubt as to whether Pynchon has actually seen any of the films in which Mothra appears, her general characterization and role have permeated into pop-culture to the point of recognition even by those with no knowledge of the films, and it seems to be Pynchon’s style to look a bit deeper into the references he makes than the average writer. Mothra is just one example of how Pynchon’s references often have deeper meanings that draw upon similarities between his own work and another text, and how careful interpretation of his writing can reveal these similarities.

Works Cited:

“Chapter 20” Pynchon Wiki: Bleeding Edge. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster. Dir. Ishiro Honda. Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1997. VHS.

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. Dir. Masaaki Tezuka. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.

Mothra. Dir. Ishiro Honda. Columbia Pictures, 1962. VHS.

“Mothra (Showa)” Toho Kingdom. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

“Mothra (Millenium, 2nd Generation)” Toho Kingdom. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. Print.

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6 Responses to Guns and Butterflies; Maxine and Mothra

  1. djs125 says:

    Before reading this, I had no knowledge of who or what Mothra was, so the reference to Mothra was very confusing to me. After reading through you research and findings on Mothra, the reference makes much more sense to me. As you say Mothra was for making peace and that’s what Maxine’s Beretta is for, the reference clearly fits perfectly. It seems as though you did good research on this topic and had prior knowledge of it having seen most of the movies the character appears in. After I read through your research and then reread the excerpt at the top, the reference to Mothra fits perfectly with Maxine’s gun and how she only wants to use it when necessary and for peace making.


  2. soc19 says:

    I am always surprised by how well-informed Pynchon’s references are, and this was a particular example. Having only seen two Mothra films as a child, I always thought of the franchise as having a kind of niche audience, much like the Godzilla films and other Toho productions, so it’s interesting to see Pynchon know it and use it here. I thought your analysis was very thorough, and you really draw on the Mothra character to help flesh out Maxine in a way that I hadn’t thought of before.


  3. riderphilze says:

    I’m really drawn to kaiju movies because of the effects and that age-old paradox of forces of destruction being used for purposes of peace (though admittedly I’ve only seen one Godzilla movie; however, I HAVE seen all but one Gamera). Your analysis comparing Mothra and Maxine is spot-on, and it’s too good for me to think Pynchon didn’t choose Mothra for all of the reasons you’ve listed.
    I mean, think about it; he could have chosen Godzilla or Gamera, the two (if you’ll pardon the pun) giants of the world of guardian monsters. Instead, he chose Mothra, a female with this purpose of mediator. I’m not too familiar with Toho’s full stable (yet), but isn’t Mothra unique in being a female kaiju? If she’s not the only one, she must be one of only a handful.


    • specifictortoise says:

      riderphilze, It can sometimes be hard to tell, since it sometimes depends on the particular film translation (Mothra is called “he” in the english version of GTTHM, for example), but off the top of my head, I can only think of the female Rodan from their debut film, Biollante, and Megaguirus. I think Jiger and Legion from Gamera were female as well (coincidentally 2 of the 3 Gamera movies I haven’t seen). I doubt anyone not familiar with these films would even recognize those characters’ names, though.


  4. Before reading your post, I thought Mothra was monster who killed alongside other Japanese monsters in those old movies. I’ve never seen any movie that Mothra was in, I saw one scene of Mothra back when I was about seven. I saw a giant moth and assumed it was evil. So when I read Pynchon’s scene including Mothra, I just assumed that Pynchon was being sarcastic. Now I understand his scene much better, and it makes a bit more sense to me.


  5. univerrse says:

    I really enjoyed your evaluation of the comparison of the Beretta and Mothra. Later in the book, Maxine drops the Beretta in exchange for the Walther PPK. Do you think that this could mean a change in thinking/being for Maxine? Perhaps a change away from sharing similarities with Mothra and perhaps another Kaiju?


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