Rodan ~ 1956, Ishiro Honda – Japan
Holy smokes, yes.
Rodan is a favorite of mine going way back. This is his/her/their first appearance, dating way back to the pre-Mothra days of 1956, and it holds up pretty darn well for the most part. With the possible exception of the ultra-grim Gojira, and the deliriously funky Godzilla Vs Hedorah, this is also one of the darker, scarier films in the entire expanded Godzilla universe, which is for sure cool. Rodan is also apparently Toho’s first Kaiju film to be shot in color, but it doesn’t feel overly vibrant or gimmicky, the palette is mostly browns, reds, and Earth tones. It’s just like Honda to use the fanciest new toy available such in a reserved, controlled fashion.
THE PLOT~ When a series of bizarre murders strikes a small, rural mining community at the base of Mt. Aso in Japan, rumors begin to spread that Goro, a missing miner with a reputation for hard fightin’, had gone all My Bloody Valentine on his colleagues and was currently hiding out deep within the chambers of the mine to escape the watchful eye of the law. Goro’s sister Kiyo is pretty upset when every person in town throws her brother under the bus like crazy, and her boyfriend Shigeru does his best to console her, but really, what do you say when your girlfriend is down in the dumps because her brother is wanted for viciously mutilating his coworkers? I had a hard time turning it all around when I took my ex-girlfriend to a Vietnamese restraint that we didn’t know was closed on Sunday. This task is doomed to fail.
Well, as it turns out, Shigeru gets lucky, because the real killer turns up and attacks them both inside Kiyo’s own home, and it sure as hell ain’t Goro. No, actually, it’s an enormous, menacing insect, the size of a damn Grizzly bear, so that really changes the course of the evening pretty drastically. “Good news, honey, you brother’s good name has been cleared! The bad news is that the last thing he saw before he died was the pincher end of this fucking abomination as it lacerated the shit out of him in the cold, dark tunnels of the mine he was confined to for most of his adult life. But again, very few people probably still think he was a murderer, so that’s the silver lining here.”
Soon, the people of this small village discover that in fact there are dozens, if not more, of these giant insects currently living deep inside the mine, and this is a problem the really kind of have to deal with right away. After participating in an offensive strike against these monster potato bugs, Shigeru is lost inside the mine and presumed eaten. Next, a bunch of scientists pow wow to try and figure out what the hell is up, and predictably, they learn that these bugs are prehistoric somehow. Japan had a real bumper crop of prehistoric monsters reemerging back in the mid twentieth century.
Speaking of …! Around this time, the entire planet starts getting divebombed by some super fast, highflying UFO that has been horrifying the shit out of everyone, tearing up any plane that tries to chase it down, and causing sonic booms which have badly damaged several cities. Nobody knows it yet, but this object is actually Rodan, or Rodans, because there are two of these critters. But just what is a Rodan? A damn giant pterodactyl, that’s what- but they fly much too fast for anyone to get a decent look at them. At this point, most people assume Rodan to be some sort of craft, a theory supported by the fact that they seems to leave a vapor trail behind him/her while in flight… Which… Like, what is that? That’s… That’s gross, actually. It’s gotta be monster farts. Rodan has no engine.
So, back at Mt. Aso, our scientists make another startling discovery; Shigeru is alive after all, but he’s dazed as hell and wandering around the mountain like a freaking zombie. They grab him and take him in for hospitalization, and initially he seems to be suffering from total amnesia. When he regains his memory, he drops some serious shit on everybody- apparently he blacked out after the attack on Potato Bug base, and when he came to, he was in a huge cavern somewhere deep within the mine, just in time to see Rodan hatch. The horror he experiences is so great that he temporarily loses his mind, which is totally H.P. Lovecraft status. Cool.
Once Rodan is identified, the rest of the movie is mostly about trying to kill them, which is all pretty straight forward, until the end of the film. See, at this point, Rodan is little more than a winged retread of the same material Gojira explored two years earlier, but the movie distinguishes itself from it’s predecessor in a few key ways, all of which are really driven home in the film’s climax.
Firstly, Rodan is never shown to be quite as horrible as Godzilla. In Gojira/Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the metaphor is clear- this monster represents atomic warfare, he is an evil man hath wrought, and now the hens have come home to roost. In Rodan, the atomic bomb thing really isn’t as cut and dry- the idea that atomic weapons may have been responsible for waking Rodan up is certainly presented, but it’s not as fact- it’s more like “Hey, how is Rodan not dead like he should be?” To which, the answer given is “I dunno. H-bomb? We’re all screwed, though.” Without the direct and implicit ties to nuclear war, Rodan sort of comes across more like an agent of our mistreated environment. For one thing, these animals are freshly hatched- so all the zooming around and flapping at buildings is more a case of children at play than the deliberately destructive monster tantrums Godzilla is known for. The finale takes this concept even further; get ready for a major buzz kill:
At the climax of the movie, our Anti-Rodan team formulates a strategy whereby explosives are used to trigger a volcanic eruption in Mt. Aso. The locals are horrified because of the damage this will do to the environment and surrounding settlements, but the military flatly declares this a necessary compromise and pushes forward with the idea. As the two sibling monsters snooze peacefully inside their cavernous nests, Japan detonates their bombs, and indeed, Aso does erupt, but not before the twin Rodans can escape. However, apparently overcome by smoke, one of the monsters tumbles down into a river of lava, and the other Rodan, apparently much more sentimental than the monsters we are used to dealing with, chooses to join it’s sibling, and willingly lands next to it, thereby committing kaiju suicide… Both monsters die, engulfed in flames, and not at all in the bitter, violent battle we expected… Which… Honestly, is sort of heavy, and probably made all the army dudes feel like serious dicks.
In the end, Rodan manages to pull the old switcheroo on us, and leaves us feeling like we’re the real monsters, who overstepped our bounds, could not deal with the consequences, and rather than learning to live in harmony with the surroundings we have created, we choose to suppress, exploit, and kill that which doesn’t suit us, and it’s not fair. This gives Rodan a different thesis, even with similar content and themes, and it makes the movie a tragedy every bit as potent as the post Hiroshima monster film that kickstarted the Kaiju phenomena.
The are two noteworthy flaws in Rodan, one; Rodan is a flying monster, and therefore this movie serves up numerous aerial sequences, but they are all badly hampered by technological limitations. The resulting shots may have been easier to swallow in the 50’s, but of all the antiquated effects that we see in these old movies, these aerial sequences stand out as being beyond what modern eyes can excuse, this is a few steps passed ‘retro’ and well into “shlocky.” Two; although distinct in small ways, the movie is still a bit of a rehash. I’m not too bothered by that, though. Rehashing is something Toho would earn a damn black belt at in the coming years, and they often manage to do it while still delivering a fantastic film. This is one of those times. Rodan isn’t as well loved as Gojira, but it’s a movie I’ve always been fond of, and I highly recommend it.