So without a holiday or pop culture fiasco to relate to, I came into February a free man, able to write about any monster movie my secret, greasy heart desires. After months away from the Godzilla franchise I knew I needed to head back that way, but something about Rodan grabbed me first. Rodan joins up with Godzilla and Mothra Avengers-style after this one anyway, so I figure it’s close enough.
I personally tend to overlook Rodan because it’s sandwiched between Gojira and Mothra and doesn’t have any monster-on-monster action, but that’s a mistake: this beast is a joy to re-watch, and represents Toho really hitting their stride with kaiju. It’s their straightest attempt at monster horror, and it’s a blast. Rodan was the highest-grossing sci-fi movie of its time, and is still one of the most beloved icons in the genre right alongside Mothra and Godzilla. Plus the US version features voicework from everybody’s favorite Star Trek officer turned Facebook super-star George Takei! So burst out of your egg, break the sound barrier, and snack on some newlyweds, because it’s time to go-dan with Rodan!
I always like to start by throwing you a sample of the music, but this time it dawned on me that these movies always have super kick-ass trailers, and I haven’t always included them in my past blogs. Let’s look at Rodan’s trailer first! Did you watch it? How fucking metal is that font?
Rodan was made by Toho’s all-star monster team: you got Ishiro Honda in the directormen’s chair, Eiji Tsubaraya shredding on special effects, and Akira Ifukube jamming out the score. In my review of Frankenstein Conquers the World I noted that it had a a much eerier, horror-driven score than most Toho creature-features, and Ifukube’s music for Rodan is that times ten. Right from the opening credits, this shit just sounds scary. Rodan starts with ghoulish serial murders in labyrinthine coal mines and ends with an apocalyptic battle atop a volcano, and Ifukube’s score matches and enhances the creeping claustrophic terror just as well as it does the catastrophic chaos. This is a neat little medley that hits the highlights. My favorite track is the wonderfully named “Get Rodan!”
Rodan came out in 1956 in Japan and 1957 in the US. Just like with Gojira and a handful of other Japanese monster movies, the American distributors decided to make some changes and cuts to the original film. It’s an effort to make the movie appeal more to a western audience, or shorten up the run-time, or more often than not both. Sometimes it’s a big fuck-up like when Godzilla Raids Again got hacked apart and slapped back together to form Gigantis the Fire Monster or when the English version of King Kong vs Godzilla replaced all of Ifukube’s classic score with generic stock music and threw in a bunch of corny news breaks. Thankfully Rodan doesn’t meet with such a terrible fate. The US version shuffles around some events, weirdly changes some location names, adds a random stock footage prologue about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and it also has the hero Shigeru narrating a good chunk of the movie. Overall the English version is a little more ham-fisted and obvious than the original, but I wouldn’t say it’s substantially worse for the wear. Plus who doesn’t want to listen to the dulcet tones of the incomparable Mr. George Takei?
Speaking of Shigeru, he and a few others in the cast are played by Toho sci-fi regulars. Shigeru’s the most notable though, because he’s played by Kenji Sahara, a.k.a. “Mr. Godzilla.” Sahara is allowed to call himself that because he’s been in 13 different Godzilla movies, more than any other actor. He’s made appearances spanning from the original all the way up through 2004’s batshit crazy Godzilla Final Wars. That’s not even including his roles in Toho’s non-Godzilla sci-fi movies, like The Mysterians, Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, Matango, and more. He was all over the Ultraman series too.
The movie opens with Shigeru and his fellow miners getting ready for their shift. It’s a real blue collar slice-of-life that immediately grounds the movie in mundane reality. It works just as well for Rodan as it did in Gojira, and this same technique is a big part of what makes Alien so goddamn terrifying. When you have a solid foundation like this, it’s easy for audiences to buy into the crazy fantasy beasts, assuming you start small and gradually ramp up the madness over the course of the movie. Rodan does it pretty cleverly. Shit moves fast in the first act: two of Shigeru’s coworkers get in a brawl, and shortly after that one of them is found dead in a flooded mine, and the other’s gone missing.
The dude who went missing is Shigeru’s (soon-to-be) brother-in-law Goro, a noted hot-head who just about everybody assumes fucking iced the other guy and went into hiding afterward. Shigeru and Kiyo call shenanigans, especially when the autopsy shows the cause of death was getting stabbed in the dome with an almost impossibly sharp blade. The authorities actually start wondering how Goro snuck a katana into the mines.
Just like in Gojira, the wife of the dead man and her friends all roll up to the mining company office demanding answers. These ladies are freaked out and pissed, a baby starts crying, the mining administrators try to calm everybody down, it’s upsetting. Any horror movie can show people die, but movies like Rodan and Gojira make it uncomfortably real by showing people mourn their dead. Grief, anger, loss; it’s brief, but it’s there and it’s pretty raw for a colorful kaiju movie.
It’s assumed Goro is hiding out in the mine, so three dudes are dispatched to bring him in for questioning. I’ve mentioned in past reviews that one of my favorite tropes in monster movies is when our heroes have to explore a bizarre new ecosystem: Mothra has scientists poking around a mutated jungle, Pacific Rim has dudes in home-made haz-mat suits scavenging for precious organs inside the corpse of a kaiju, Them! sends a platoon of flame thrower-packin’ privates into the nest of giant, radioactive ants, the list goes on. It’s great. Rodan has a claustrophobic, low-key variation on the theme with the flooded mines, and shit gets hectic when our three miners are up to their armpits in pitch-black water.
We only hear the Meganulon while it runs up and massacres these saps, and it’s a great way to build tension and not give away the creature too early. The downside is that the noises the Meganulon makes are pretty goofy. Silly sound aside, when it pulls the first miner to his doom it’s creepy. Jaws does this trick awesomely, but whereas Bruce the shark whips that hippie chick around in the water ferociously fast, the Meganulon drags this poor bastard down nice and slow, giving him ample time to scream out in terror, freaking out his compatriots who start shooting blindly into the water and shitting bricks.
Naturally we jump ahead to the morgue and find out that those dudes were discovered sliced up by something incredibly sharp, one of them was partially beheaded. It’s off-screen, but that’s pretty brutal for 1956. This idea of supernaturally sharp cuts seems to be a recurring trope for Japanese monsters. We have the Meganulons cleanly slicing through flesh and bone, Gamera’s villain Gyaos shoots a sonic beam that can shear clean through steel, and Guiron (another rad Gamera monster) literally has a giant, super-sharp sword for a head. I bring it up because western monsters seem more prone to leave their victims looking like they got shoved through a wood chipper. I guess either way would be a shitty way to die, but at least Japan’s Ginsu knife ghouls would end you quickly.
After another shittily murder-filled day at work, Shigeru goes home to Kiyo, who just narrowly avoided another mob of ultra-pissed-off wives. Shigeru reassures her that it couldn’t be Goro slaying all these dudes like a fucking maniac, and we get a nice, if short, human moment with these characters. I love Toho’s early monster output because they give us candid glimpses into a rawer, more old school Japan. Once we get into the 60s most people are looking like they just walked off the set of “Mad Men,” bustling around big cities in sharp-looking suits and dresses. But until then, we have Shigeru and Kiyo’s traditional little house with classic Japanese sliding doors and kimonos abound. Their whole community is made up of real salt-of-the-earth types, carving industry out of the wilderness, laying the groundwork for the futuristic super-cities of the following decades. But fuck all that, because now they have to deal with a man-eating dino-bug that just trundled into their house like a hungry raccoon!
Shigeru and Kiyo book it the hell out of their house to get help, and thankfully they keep it vague and just tell everyone there’s a “strange animal” in their house. Too many creature features have their leads running around town telling everyone that’ll listen that murderers/aliens/monsters/zombies/Paula Deens are running amok, and the incompetent adults always brush it off as the intoxicated ramblings of a drunk/stoner or the antics of no-goodnik kids playing a prank. Of course no one will believe your story that zombified robo-bigfoots from outer space are after you, but they probably will believe a pack of dogs or drunk thugs are! It’s a classic case of Keep It Simple, Mother Fucker.
The small mining community Shigeru and Kiyo live in is a tight-knit one, and they quickly get a posse to rush in and flush out the Meganulon. I’ve mentioned in past reviews (especially Gamera 2) how much I love when these movies find a way to work in smaller monsters, and Rodan does it masterfully with the Meganulons. Not only do they keep the human characters busy, but they build up and lead seamlessly into the real stars, the Rodans. Yep, PLURAL. We’ll get to that later.
The small mob chases the Meganulon up a hill, and the monster suit spends about half of its time looking hilarious. I blame this mostly on the suit’s very humanoid legs and feet. At the top of the hill, the creature grabs two dudes with its deadly pincers. The cops blast its ass with their handguns, which makes the monster roll down the side of the hill. This is accomplished with miniatures, and this is where we really see the Meganulon’s goofy man-legs as it awkwardly tumbles down. The miniature men on the other hand look pretty awesome and are a lot more convincing. They’re like weighted rag-dolls or something, it’s a technique I’ve only seen Toho try a couple other times. It probably helps that we only see the dolls for a moment, and we see more of the bloodied actors instead.
The Meganulon high-tails it back into the mines, and our heroes give chase. Along the way they find more mangled corpses, and the coal mine is more claustrophobic and sinister than ever. They find Goro hiding in terror from a whole nest of hungry Meganulons, and find out the hard way that the bugs shrug off machine guns just like they do handguns. In desperation, Shigeru crashes a mine train into a Meganulon, killing it, but also causing a cave-in that traps Shigeru and Goro underground.
Shigeru isn’t out for long though, an earthquake and eruption of the nearby Mt. Aso sends a dazed, amnesiac Shigeru to the surface, where he’s recovered and subjected to a weird game of dinosaur match-em-up. Maybe to help him get his memory back? He understandably wigs out when they show him a photo of a Meganulon, but it’s not enough to jog his memory all the way. But we take a break from his story to start tracking a weird UFO that’s been flying around Japan. Of course it’s Rodan, but the first few times he’s onscreen, he looks more like this:
Out of context it’s just a shot of a jet-liner, but the way its used in the movie is surprisingly eerie; it looks like a plane, but the audience knows it’s something much more foreboding. Throughout the movie they really capitalize on the immenseness of the sky and make it seem like it could be home to monsters just as much as the unexplored depths of the sea. I’m sure this was doubly creepy during the height of UFO-mania in the 50s. Speaking of which, the story for Rodan was inspired by a real-life event! Sadly, Rodan wasn’t based on reports of living pterodactyls tearing ass through the sky, but one dude totally crashed his plane pursuing what he thought was a UFO back in 1948.
Despite looking nothing like a flying saucer, Rodan is described as such at first, and I chalk it up to “flying saucer” being used interchangeably with “UFO.” At least that makes more sense than The Giant Claw‘s constant rambling about flying battleships. Even this early on they hint at there being more than one Rodan, with him attacking in China and the Philippines in rapid succession before circling back to Japan, though it’s also implied that Rodan is insanely fast.
So with Rodan sufficiently built up as a threat, we get a pair of random newlyweds taking a super romantic day trip to the bombed-out volcanic hellhole that recently opened up. After some 1956-style selfies, Rodan meets up with the lovebirds, and it doesn’t end awesomely for them. It is awesome for us though! Rodan screams down from the sky after them and sounds like a fucking F-22 dive-bombing their silly asses. His gigantic shadow whips over them, and the gust he creates in his wake knocks them on their faces. Most old-timey horror flicks would cut here, but Rodan lets us catch the dude scramble to his feet and try to make a run for it, leaving his wife behind like a mega-douche.
When we bounce back to Shigeru and Kiyo, he’s farting around their house recuperating and Kiyo innocently shows him that her pet bird has pooped out an egg. This causes Shigeru to dook his drawers and flashback harder than an episode of “Lost.” He remembers the cavernous, foggy chamber he was trapped in underground, that it was crawling with grody Mega-poo-lons, and that worst of all, there was a gigantic-ass egg on the other side of the cave.
So Shigeru was in dire straits with Meganulons on all sides, but we know he made it out. Did he MacGuyver together a flame-thrower out of rocks, dryer lint, and moxy? NAH MAN BABBY RODAN ATE THEM BITCHES
Baby Rodan is almost hilariously adorable and does a couple interesting things. He shows us that Rodan is at least an almost natural being, with an understandable life cycle instead of being an inscrutable force of nature. It also set a precedent for monster babies to pop up in a whole shit-ton of these movies. Most famously we have Godzilla’s (step?)son and ultra-pimp extraordinaire Minya, but there’s also Britain’s Gorgo, where the monster’s mom rips London a brand new poop-chute in pursuit of her captured baby, Gappa has some fools paying the price for monster baby-napping too. Pacific Rim, 1998’s “Godzilla,” and 2014’s Godzilla all have stories that feature monster babies too. According to “word of god” Clorverfield‘s monster is a gigantic, terrified infant having a shit-fit in NYC. It’s such an iconic and well-loved trope that it’s one of the power up cards you can use in the bitchin’ kaiju board game King of Tokyo.
Shigeru heads a search party into the cave to try and collect some evidence of his story, which would also solve the mystery of the murder-UFO flying around east Asia. They find a hunk of eggshell, and have it analyzed by a gloriously 50s-looking super computer, a.k.a. a big gray box covered with flashing colored lights. Rodan then indulges in the obligatory “hey what’s up with this monster shit?” press conference. Akihiko Hirata plays Professor Kashiwagi, a biologist that seems to have specialized in dinosaurs or something. Avid monster fans will recognize him from his much cooler role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira. Kashiwagi doesn’t have much personality compared to Gojira’s eye-patched mad scientist, but he does a good job of approaching this like a real scientist. He doesn’t claim to have absolute knowledge of what Rodan’s whole deal is, and basically shrugs and goes “I dunno, it’s possible nukes caused him?” As early as 1956, it seems like Toho’s already inching away from the nuclear horror allegory. They also reference global warming and other changes to the Earth that might have stirred Rodan and the Meganulons.
They surmise that Rodan must have set up shop near the cave he hatched from, and they go out to investigate… and find a whole goddamn Rodan!
This suit is by far the best portrayal of Rodan to date. In all of his appearances in the 60s, Rodan has a teeny little head, making him look like a pterodactyl Don Knotts. When he pops up in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 the suit and puppet look pretty cool and are super detailed, but they’re so stiff they can’t move or emote as well as the older suits. In 2004’s Final Wars, he looks like a red and orange Batman. Which is cool in its own way, but not quite the sick-ass-ness of OG Rodan. Look at this majestic mother fucker:
Shigeru and pals witness Rodan taking flight from his cave, and it’s… awkward looking. It’s immediately followed by one of my favorite kaiju effects sequences though. One dude from their group says “fuck monsters I’m peacing out,” and tries to drive off in a jeep. The Rodester is not having it, and flies right over him, kicking up a gust of wind so powerful that it whips the jeep across the road and into a rock wall. The jeep’s an awesome-looking miniature, complete with another doll-man. The jeep crumpling against stone would have been terrific on its own, but it’s a little shocking to see a surprisingly realistic (and now broken) leg sticking out the side of it.
They use a lot of effective camera movements to make Rodan seem blisteringly fast. His roar is cool and distinctive, and his theme music is a ton of fun too. This is when the movie really starts cooking. A handful of fighter jets scream through the sky, trying to catch and keep up with Rodan, and there are some great practical effects used to duplicate the POV of the pilots racing through Rodan’s jet stream. The flipside is that their blue-screening/composite shots are rough, and Rodan looks kind of doofy when he turns. It’s an ambitious sequence, and it seems like for every shot they just totally nail, there’s one they can’t quite pull off with 1956 effects and budget.
Rodan hits its stride when the fighter jets try to take down the Rodemeister, but shit hits a fever pitch when Rodan starts shredding the city of Fukuoka. Just giving the town a fly-over causes catastrophic havoc: cars and buses are whipped into the sides of buildings, which collapse and catch fire as people frantically evacuate and the military dutifully rolls in. The miniatures are so lovingly detailed that we see individual shingles fly off roofs. The pièce de résistance is when Rodan gracefully lands on top of a train station, crushing it spectacularly. Visible wires be damned, the suit’s movements are so lively and natural and the miniature set is so detailed that this is a total delight to behold. If kaiju movies are destruction porn, I guess this is Rodan’s money shot.
He does a move like this a second time, and it looks baller as fuck both times. The tanks are pretty pissed at our man Rodey and pursue him, rolling over fantastic-looking miniature fences and signs. Lucky for them Rodan is a lot slower on the ground. Unlucky for them he is just gonna keep trashing Fukuoka anyway. They periodically cut to some military brass staked out in a “safe” building, and it’s kind of hilarious because each time they cut back to them, they look a little sadder. Then Rodan comes after them! Then they find out there are two Rodans! Looks of sadness rapidly become looks of “oh shit we’re fucking dead”ness.
With their cape-like wings, the Rodans look like a couple bad-ass prehistoric Draculas tearing the city apart. From a pure spectacle standpoint, this sequence handily outdoes the two Godzilla films that came before it, and it’s still easily some of the best miniature city destruction I’ve ever seen. With two monsters working together in brilliant color, tons of smoke, explosions, advancing tanks, and extremely detailed buildings flying apart, this is one for the ages, and a true masterpiece for miniature effects maestro Tsuburaya. Eventually the Rodans get bored and sick of taking tank shells to the face, so they fly off. Dr. Kashiwagi figures they must be going back to their nest near the volcano, so the army decides they’re gonna blow it the hell up and bury the Rodans alive. It’ll also trigger a volcanic eruption that will destroy Shigeru and Kiyo’s hometown. This pisses off pretty much that whole town, but the army argues that losing a small town’s worth of buildings is better than allowing the death and destruction of another Fukuoka.
While the “evacuate the city” sequence is a tried and true trope in giant monster films, Rodan keeps it fresh with a couple really striking shots, including a crazy-long pan of what appears to be hundreds of people hurrying along a long, lush country road with all the valuables they can carry. In another parallel to Gojira, our heroes track the monsters home and attack them while they sleep. It doesn’t have the eerie stillness of Gojira’s undersea resolution, especially because their “plan” is just to blow the hell out of a mountain with missiles and tank fire for five minutes straight, but there’s still that uneasy feeling that comes with wiping someone out in their sleep, even if they are city-flattening dino-monsters. I’d say that’s largely because Rodan develops its title monsters even more than Gojira did. Unlike Godzilla, the Rodans are born, they eat meat, they mate, they nest and sleep. They’re not out punishing the world for mankind’s hubris, they just want to live. It just so happens that their living is extremely detrimental to us living.
Shigeru is stationed with the army to oversee the bombardment, and Kiyo breaks away from the evacuation to be with him. They run off to safety while the mountain continues to explode, eventually spurting some awesome-looking lava. I’m not sure how Tsuburaya and friends pulled off this effect, but it’s a great shade of bright orange and actually catches fire when it splashes against the rocks. One of the Rodans flies out just as the volcano starts to erupt, but the other one isn’t quick enough and tumbles into the pooling lava. Then the first Rodan, the one that’s well airborne and seemingly able to get away, drops out of sky and lands with its mate in the lava. Was it overwhelmed by the toxic gases and smoke billowing out of the volcano and unable to go on? Or did it see its mate dying in the molten rock and say “fuck this I quit”? I say it’s up for interpretation, but Kiyo is pretty shook up by it. The army just kind of quietly packs up and leaves, and no one says a fucking word.
In the Japanese version at least. In the US version Shigeru has an internal monologue where he wonders if he could ever make a sacrifice like that for Kiyo, kind of killing any chance for interpretation. So yeah, Rodan straight up is a tale of killer pterodactyl star-crossed lovers. I didn’t realize it until halfway through rewatching the movie, but I totally found a giant monster movie that ties in with Valentine’s Day.
The Rodans meet an unfortunate end, but they take us for one hell of a ride and shape the entire genre before they go down in a literal blaze of glory. Like all the truly great monsters, this was just the beginning for one of the Rodans, who would go on to fight even more bizarre battles. The tone would never really be the same though, not after the break-out success of Mothra and King Kong vs Godzilla a few years later. After those mega-hits, Toho’s monster output shifted more towards fantasy, adventure, and comedy rather than sci-fi, horror, and dramatic action. Rewatching Rodan, I couldn’t help but think about Godzilla 2014. The tone and story-telling in Godzilla ’14 seemed to be a much closer match for the original Rodan than the movies Rodan actually went on to co-star in. With the Rodes Scholar himself set to appear in Legendary’s new Godzilla films, I can’t help but think it’ll feel like a throwback to the 1956 original, and that’s an exciting thought for a monster fan. Happy Valentimes all you love
Great review for a great kaiju movie. The ending used to make me cry. True story! Seriously, I feel like this is one of the best “pure” kaiju movies before the camp era set in.
Agreed on all counts! The Rodans really are tragic creatures, and perfectly fit Honda’s classic quote about the tragedy of kaiju.
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