Sora no daikaijû Radon / ラドン
A mystery in a mine deepens. A miner has gone missing and everyone suspects his rival of murder. As the tale digs deeper, we discover the truth: he has fallen prey to gigantic subterranean insect-creatures, the nightmarish meganulons.1 These creatures, unleashed from the depths of the earth, are about ten or twenty feet long and voracious-- and they're only an appetizer for the horror to come. Soon, humanity will have to confront the thing that feeds on them.
In 1956, Japan's Toho Studios released its fourth2 kaiju film, and it featured someone other than the Big G. Indeed, Rodan brings a fresh look at outsized monsters. Yes, we have the same basic plot as Gojira: disparate mysteries resolve when a giant monster appears. Radiation plays some role. The monster destroys stuff, and survivor drama ensues. Some method of killing the monster finally materializes. (If you recall the plot of Godzilla unfolding differently, it's because you've only seen the American release, which re-edited the film, changed the order of sequences, and inserted new scenes). However, the nature of the creatures, the reasons for their destructive rage, and the mood that surrounds their ending, all differ from Godzilla's.3
A nuclear weapon released radioactive Godzilla, who clearly, in his first film, embodies the threat presented by the Atomic Age. In his first and most frightening appearance, he is a force to be survived, about as sympathetic as a nuclear strike or a volcanic eruption. Rodan gets released by humans exploiting nature without thought to consequences.4 Despite causing massive destruction, the impossibly large pterodactyloid isn't malevolent, but lost, out of place, and in love.
Indeed, as the film progresses, we learn that we're dealing with two Rodans, a mated pair. As the armies gather, a sense of tragedy looms, making Rodan more akin to King Kong than Godzilla.5
Rodan works best as the drive-in/Saturday matinee/late night classic it became and, viewed in that light, it contains some fine moments. Our hero Shigeru's account of his experiences in the mine, once he recovers his memory, gives the title creature a memorable first appearance. The effects are a bit shaky, especially by today's standards, but this remains one of the definitive moments in kaiju films. Generally, however, both acting and effects may strain the patience of contemporary audiences. It's very hard to assess acting when you watch a subtitled film, but this plays as very wooden. Characters have been drawn broadly, or not at all. And if it's difficult to act in a rubber Godzilla suit, try to imagine what it's like to emote from within a giant rubber chicken.
Look, a rubber suit on wires looks like a rubber suit on wires. Rodan features some great miniature work, however, and excellent colour. And while the meganulons hardly represent the height of special effects technology, they do have a creepy, low-rent nightmarish quality.
Of course, part of the charm of these films involves MT3K-ing their effects and questioning their internal reality. I'll accept the presence of creatures hundreds of feet long that can fly, since the science in these movies makes little pretense towards being credible. But why don't the Rodans need to flap their wings once aloft? Why do they make airplane noises and leave jet trails? Come to think of it, those problems could be mutually resolved, but only by making a silly premise even sillier.
If you've only watched the endless, frequently silly sequels, spin-offs, and monster rallies that comprise the kaiju genre, you may be surprised at how seriously the early efforts were taken. None match the grim, Hiroshima/Nagasaki-inspired tone of Godzilla's debut, but Rodan at least tries to be about something more than destruction wrought by impossible creatures. One continually glimpses a better movie here, a fact which may explain its lasting appeal. It makes me wonder: could a re-envisioned Rodan fly today?
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeshi Kamura and Ken Koronuma.
(American version includes material by David Duncan)
Kenji Sahara as Shigeru Kawamura
Yumi Shirakawa as Kiyo
Akihiko Hirata as Professor Kyuichiro Kashiwagi
Akio Kobori as Police Chief Nishimura
Minosuke Yamada as Colliery Chief Osaki
Rinsaku Ogatu as Goro
Haruo Nakajima as Rodan
1. The interplay between American monster cinema and Japanese kaiju, and with similar efforts elsewhere in the world, has long been discussed, at least, by people who watch films where ginormous monsters break stuff. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms directly inspired Gojira, which led to a slew of films in Japan and elsewhere.
The American drive-in classic Them! precedes this film by a couple of years, and I find it likely them giant ants inspired the meganulans that scuttle around as Rodan's appetizer creatures.
2. Most people think of Rodan as Toho's third kaiju film, after Godzilla and its first sequel. However, Rodan was preceded by a film called (in English) Half Human, about a gigantic ape-like creature. That film is rarely seen anymore, and copies have become rare collector's items. Furthermore, its monster was never folded into a shared world with Toho's other daikaiju.
3. The American release of Rodan makes fewer changes than were wreaked upon Gojira, but the U.S. still managed to cheese-up an already cheesy film, draining much of the tension from it. The original Japanese film should be sought out where possible.
4. The Japanese original contains a reference to global warming.
5. Minor Spoiler
Kaiju fans generally regard the Rodan that teams with Godzilla in future outings as the offspring of the ones who die in this film.