Godzilla! One plaintive cry of fear, accompanied by the roar of the biggest baddest monster of the nuclear age, created a cinematic icon that has lasted for well over fifty years. Godzilla, and the associated kaiju movies that sprung up in its destructive wake, not only captured the cultural imagination of people worldwide in the 1950s, but carved out an incredibly vast new genre of science fiction movie that lasts well into the new millennium.
Welcome to Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a year-long weekly series that hopes to not only share the joy of these Godzilla movies, but all the kaiju movies that came out of Toho Studios from 1954 to 2004. Not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, and dozens more! And you can play along with the adventure, following the full weekly schedule HERE, as we watch men in suits stomp miniatures of famous cities flat for not just our entertainment, but for the history of cinema itself!
Today we finally get away from the big lizard himself, starting a journey that will take us through an array of new monsters and new ideas before we come back to the now-frozen Godzilla. Don’t worry, he’s not gone (and returns in truly spectacular fashion). But in the meantime, we have the second wave of kaiju films that sprung up in the wake of Godzilla’s success. Not to imply that they’re lesser quality, though, as evidenced by today’s movie. A truly great film, and one of my favorites from this entire project. Today, meet the horror of the winged monster…
Rodan, in many ways, feels like more of a genuine follow up to Godzilla than Godzilla Raids Again did. This 1956 production features the return of director Ishiro Honda, who brings with him a sort of understanding as to what makes these movies work more than the last film did. While Godzilla Raids Again feels like a cheap sequel, Rodan refuses to be an also-ran, and does many of the same things right that the original Godzilla did (even improving on some of them) to create a movie that stands up as it’s own fantastic entry into kaiju history. There’s a reason why Rodan is remembered, and that’s because his film is pretty awesome.
In a small village in Kyushu, the southernmost and most rural island in Japan, there exists a mine. What they’re mining isn’t important, what matters is that there’s something going on in the mine. As they dig deeper, they’re experiencing strange floods, and as the movie opens there’s even two missing miners. Geologists on site shoot down possible rising water levels due to global warming (they are in the mountains, after all) and instead send an investigative group down into the flooded area. What they find is the missing miner, his head nearly severed by some sort of sword-stroke.
The whole village is quick to accuse the other, still-missing miner of murder, over the protests of Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) and the miner’s sister Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa), a young couple who know that this man couldn’t have been responsible. Shigeru leads a team into the mines again, but the team is attacked by something in the darkness and one of their number is killed. The village, incensed, continue to accuse Kiyo that her brother is guilty. Kiyo, left with only Shigeru to comfort her, insists that her brother must be innocent. It’s then that evidence proving it falls into her lap: a giant insect, as high as a person with giant claws, crashes through her back door.
The entire village gathers to fight off the insect (which isn’t alone), and with the help of the policemen investigating the murder manage to chase these creatures up the slopes of the nearby volcano where they manage to kill one of them. However, in the process, they all get caught in an earthquake and Shigeru is lost. As they try to search for him in the rubble and collapsed land, the scientists on site identify the creature from paleontology books: it’s a meganulon, an insect from the Paleozoic era, somehow emerged from suspended animation and grown to humongous size. At the same time as they have the solution to their murders, suddenly a new threat shows up, a UFO of some sort that appeared in the skies of Japan at the same time as the earthquake, faster than any jet, that wipes out any plane sent to identify it before they can report what’s attack them. It’s then that a searching party finds Shigeru, his memory lost from injuries during the earthquake, but who seems to remember something about the threat of the monster they’re facing.
As you might expect, Shigeru remembers the creature about the same time the air force finally mobilizes enough to track it down and spot it: it’s a giant pteranodon, swollen to monstrous size from pollution (of a possibly nuclear nature) in the ground and water, that Shigeru stumbled upon in an egg chamber and watched hatch, eating the meganulon that were infesting the caves and rapidly growing to maturity. This pteranodon is shortened to Radon, which is a name I still find so obvious I’m amazed they got away with translating it as Rodan in the English (and kept that way, potentially to avoid confusion with the element). Though nobody knows quite what to do to stop it as the air force fails to shoot it down and it makes landfall in the small city of Fukuoka.
The Fukuoka attack is an amazing special effects spectacle. The Rodan costume is as imposing as Godzilla, often moreso as it moves with a speed (especially when it’s on wires in the air) that Godzilla can’t match. It perches atop a building and beats its wings and buildings become stripped of shingles, signs fly off, windows shatter, and cars tumble down the streets. It’s an incredible effect, less instantly cataclysmic than Godzilla’s building stomping, but effective in just how much detail the smaller debris have on film. When those shingles come off, they blow off the miniature roof in layers, and then the bare roof itself starts to peel away, the whole mess flying into nearby buildings. And then the army rolls in, an array of tanks and missile batteries, again all in miniature, to try to at least wound the creature now that it’s on the ground. It’s amazing work, some of my favorite miniatures in any movie, and they hold up incredibly well.
Now is probably a good time to point out the obvious: Rodan is the first kaiju film Toho made that’s in color, and in fact one of their first color movies. The color ads a vibrancy that really makes the movie work, Rodan a bright rusty figure cutting against clear blue skies, destroying a multicolored town set against the rich forests surrounding Fukuoka. There’s a brightness that color allows, massaging the effects even in daylight (which Godzilla seemed to studiously avoid) that allows everything to feel faster and more kinetic. That the monster can get into dogfights with jets doesn’t hurt, either. The scenes of a model Rodan literally flying circles around baffled air force pilots feels surprisingly modern, an aerial chase that still works on film today as well as it did back when it was first released.
It’s in the middle of this battle that another horror is revealed: there isn’t one Rodan, but two! A second Rodan is spotted in one of the exposed caverns of the volcano near the mines, and the military rushes fresh forces to the volcano to try to attack it as well. At the same time, the first Rodan, seemingly aware that its partner is in danger, flies back to the cavern. With both Rodan in the same place, the military unleashes a full barrage not on the Rodan, but on the slopes of the volcano itself, slowly doing enough damage to weaken one of the walls of the mountain and triggering an early eruption of the volcano. As the miners look on, the whole mountain erupts into lava flows, and as the Rodan try to escape one of them is caught in the lava and can’t fly out, crying out at its partner. The second one, seemingly unwilling to leave without its partner, wheels around and then lands next to it in the lava, sacrificing itself as both of them burst into flames before being consumed by the lava.
What I find most interesting about Rodan, aside from it’s fairly amazing special effects, is how much it evolves the themes of Godzilla and sets the stage for the evolution of kaiju we’re going to see when Godzilla makes his on-screen return. The nuclear metaphors are here, but put on the back burner for a more general environmental message. The Rodan and Meganulon might have been mutated into giant proportions by the radiation, but it was the miners who dug deep enough to break into the caverns and awaken them from their prehistoric slumber. In fact, I was surprised by the casual references to things like global warming and pollution in a 1956 movie, tossed around by scientists as givens. We live in an age where that kind of environmental concern and awareness is somehow controversial, and there would undoubtedly be someone on the screen shouting ‘No, that’s a MYTH!’ if it were made today. Just like there’d be another person refusing to believe Rodan was real until it blew down his house. Thankfully, these kaiju movies, particularly those of Honda, are far smarter than those obvious, easy cliches.
Just as important, though, is that all of the hostilities are triggered by the actions of humans. The Meganulon are predatory, sure, but the Rodan are just animals. They fly around and eat livestock until the military tries to shoot them down, and then they retaliate. All of the violence and destruction can be boiled down to an animal just trying to protect its home and itself and its mate from violence inflicted upon it. This leads up to the final sacrifice the Rodan makes for its mate, a humanizing gesture far beyond anything that Godzilla had done on screen in his two prior cinematic appearances. While there was definitely a tragedy to Godzilla’s death in the first movie, it was more of disappointment at the inevitable destruction of a wondrous creature. Here, there’s real empathy, a sense that these creatures could be understood and even related to, that sets the stage for further humanization of the monsters on film as the series heads into the 60s and 70s.
I’ve gone on at length about Rodan, and I haven’t even touched on the English version, but honestly I really do love this movie. It expands the kaiju universe in interesting ways past the first two Godzilla movies, creating a universe in where these monsters can have an ecology all their own, emotions and attitudes, and more and more supplant the human leads (you notice Shigeru doesn’t even pop up in me talking about the second half of this movie?) as the stars of their own movies. We haven’t quite gotten to the defining change in what these movies represent (you’ll have to wait for Godzilla to show back up for that to happen) but what we have here is a stepping stone into moving away from stock 50s science fiction into something much more unique, and much better, that will take up much of this project.
Rodan, much like Godzilla Raids Again, never got a huge set of changes done to it. However, the production seems to be much more modest than that nightmare of fiddling, some re-edits and a dub that changed very little (and in fact incorporated some cut footage from the Japanese version). I don’t have a bunch to say about Rodan aside from noting the changes, but it’s interesting that this movie ended up being fairly successful (getting a wide release and becoming a TV movie mainstay), which probably has a lot to do with why Rodan is often thought of right behind Godzilla (and maybe Gamera or Mothra) when people think of kaiju.
That said, I still think the US version is by far the lesser film. It, like Godzilla Raids Again, opens with stock footage of nuclear testing, and an educational-film style narrator talking about the threats of bombs and the horrors we might unleash, until it switches over to another narrator, as Shigeru now talks over a good portion of the movie, accompanied by more stock music replacing good chunks of the original score. It’s not as frustrating as the needless narration of Godzilla Raids Again, but it’s fully unsubtle, describing emotions and feelings that existed better as subtext on the film. It also spoils much of the tension, as the American film intimates that something is wrong in the mine far before any monsters show up, while dropping the evolving mystery of a potential murder. A smaller, but more annoying, change is that many of the sound effects for the monsters and explosions are replaced. There’s a very particular quality to Rodan’s cry and the flight noise, and the ensuing tank/artillery barrage, that is mostly lost as the American version shoves in more ‘accurate’ effects that do nothing but make the miniatures look more fake when they make realistic sounds. It’s self-defeating, and gets down to the heart of how the American sensibilities often mistake the goal of special effects as being realism, something the Japanese effects makers never particularly strived for in any of these movies.
Less frustrating, though more baffling, is the way the last third is re-edited. The film goes out of its way to establish that there are two Rodan much earlier, before even the attack on Fukuoka. I don’t know why they’d make those changes, as it requires a lot of fiddly edits that don’t amount to any actual benefit to the film, but I guess they thought the reveal just came too late for what people expected out of monster movies at the time? It’s not bad, but it’s strange, and it ends up making the plot beats stumble more than they do in the Japanese original. That said, the action remains the same, and it still looks pretty fantastic, so it’s hard to hate on a movie that is 80-90% unchanged from its original version. I wouldn’t recommend the American version over the Japanese, but I also think this is the first movie where if you only saw the dub I wouldn’t say you’re missing out on a whole lot, either, which … has to count for something, right?
- flight up to mach 1.5
- extreme mid-air maneuverability
- hurricane force winds from wings
- getting shot, apparently
- also lava
- being gross (giant bug, ew!)
- razor-sharp claws/mandibles
- damaged easily by conventional weaponry
- being eaten by Rodans