Written by: Takeshi Kimura, Ken Kuronuma, and Takeo Murata
Directed by: IshirŰ Honda
Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, and Akihiko Hirata
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďIt's hard to believe in the existence of such a thing in nature."
After the success of Gojira in 1954, Toho did the expected thing and quickly shuttled a follow-up, Godzilla Raids Again, into theaters the following year. When that film featured another monster in Godzillaís recurring frenemy Angurius and proved to be fruitful, the studio knew it was in the business of Kaiju films, so it quickly went to the drawing board to conjure up some more monstrous companions for its new mascot. Itís at this point that everyone involved really started to stretch their legs and imagine an entire universe full of strange, imaginative beasts.
The first of these offerings, 1956ís Rodan, introduced audiences to this colorful new world and put the Kaiju film on the path towards its comic book style trappings of the coming years. Even putting that aside, however, Rodan also represents the same sort of gamesmanship that often defines follow-ups and cash-ins, as Toho didnít just churn out a generic Godzilla knock-off but instead dreamed up a creature that could fly and wreak havoc on a global scale.
Despite the increased scope, the framework is relatively similar to Gojiraís; once again, the film starts in a small, rural community, where a group of miners comes under attack by an unseen assailant. Two menóGoro and Yoshióend up missing, and only the latter turns up as a corpse. Itís assumed that Goro is his killer, and head of security Shigeru Kawamura (Kenji Sahara) leads an investigation into the local shaft along with a group of policemen. The search is met with more violence: the three policemen are killed, and their corpses reveal the same lacerations that were found on Yoshiís body. Befuddled, Shigeru doubts that Goro could actually be the killer and continues to console the wanted manís sister (Yumi Shirakawa); while calling on her, his suspicions are immediately but unexpectedly confirmed when a gigantic insect larvae suddenly attacks.
Wait, but isnít Rodan actually a giant, mutated Pteranodon? Whatís with this creepy-crawly insect business? Thatís one of the many pleasures of Rodan, as itís a film thatís constantly mutating itself. What starts as seemingly a standard murder-mystery (complete with scarred and bloodied cadavers) turns into something like an American bug movie in the vein of Them or Tarantula before finally giving way to Rodan, who gets reawakened from its volcanic nest. The bug stuff is essentially a bit of misdirection, but itís a fun diversion because the creatures are distinctive and weird. Since theyíre technically larvae, theyíre gooey and wormy, and their first appearance is kind of startling: after settling into this relatively slow-burn murder mystery where youíre expecting a giant, flying pterodactyl to eventually show up, this giant bug crawls its way onto the screen. Good stuff, and itís indicative of the type of film Rodan isóitís certainly not as heavy as its predecessor and is more concerned with its various twists and turns.
That said, once Rodan finally enters the picture, the film begins to feel a bit more familiar. We catch a glimpse of the creature when it battles a fighter jet, but it mostly remains unseen while it screeches over various worldwide locales, much to the amazement to the team of scientists and military experts tracking him. How could he attack across such distances in such a short amount of time? The film wisely builds him up without really tipping its hand, which is a key element to monster movies, of course. Good promotion is a necessity. A major component of Rodanís billing brings us directly into Godzilla territoryóto no oneís surprise, itís theorized that heís been awakened by nuclear testing, and the film even borrows the flashback structure of Gojiria by knocking Shigeru out of the picture and saddling him with amnesia. Once he recovers his memory, he recalls that Rodan climbed out of a giant egg down in the mineshaft, a recollection that sends the film hurtling towards its inevitable conclusion.
Like in Gojira, thereís a centerpiece destruction sequence, albeit one that seems a bit more quaint. Aside from an ability to spit out some sort of radioactive gas, Rodanís M.O. involves flapping his wings to cause ample amounts of carnage. The sequence is still impressive and arguably more chaotic than the one presented in Gojira, as both people and vehicles get flung around in the whirlwind of destruction. Itís pretty hectic, what with all the tanks and fighter jets opening fire on Rodan, and it also feels a little jauntier and exciting this time around, as if Toho really wanted to lean in more on the spectacle this time out. Even Rodan himself somehow seems a little cooler than Godzilla, which isnít a slight against the King of the Monstersóif anything, it makes the destruction that less disturbing because itís no longer being perpetrated by an uncanny monolith. Instead, Rodanís darting all over the place, and the sequence plays as a more of an action-packed set-piece rather than a long, brooding stare into a horrifying abyss. That itís candy-colored and occurs in daylight also renders it a bit lighter, and this is not to mention the obvious wirework that exposes the seams a bit.
The denouement here also isnít nearly as somber; sure, thereís some lip service to the obligatory hesitation about destroying Rodan, but the climax degenerates into the Japanese military taking the fight to the creatureís volcanic abode. For a brief moment, the assault becomes tedious as tanks pepper the hillside, but thereís a creeping realization that this, too, is perhaps as disturbing as Rodanís own romp through the city. Itís a reminder that weíre now living in a tit-for-tat world without the possibility for peaceful reconciliation, and an unexpectedly poignant moment begins to shift some sympathy towards the monsteróor, monsters, in this case, since the movie eventually reveals that there are in fact two Rodans (you can just imagine the delight of the Toho exec who pitched that idea as the studio figured out how to top itself). After one is snuffed out and lay screeching in a bed of lava, its mate willingly descends and dies alongside it instead of lashing out at their attackers, which is a remarkably thoughtful moment considering the filmís otherwise airy nature.
Itís much more in the spirit of King Kong than it is Gojira, and it foreshadows Tohoís eventual direction, as it would soon begin to arrange its monsters like objects in sandbox, waiting to be mashed together. While Iím not sure that the studio had an intricate, Marvel Studios-style plan, itís not surprising that the next decade would see Toho stage its own monster rallies. Despite having Ishiro Honda at the helm, Rodan itself predictably succumbs to the law of diminishing returns; it might not be a direct sequel to Gojiria, but itís certainly in its shadow and never quite escapes it. At least its attempt to do so is quite spirited; forgive the obvious word choice, but Rodan is a different beast altogether and feels more like a sunnier cousin rather than a proper descendant. Back when Sony and Classic Media finally got around to doing Tohoís output some justice, Rodan was a bit of an afterthought, arriving about two years after the companyís landmark Gojira release. It was worth the wait, at least, as the release features both the original Japanese cut and the U.S. version, both of which were restored. An original documentary, ďBringing Godzilla Down to Size,Ē represents the lone special feature, but the film is paired with War of the Gargantuas to round out a nice package. Though they were separated by a decade, the two make for an appropriate pairing since Rodan essentially solidified Tohoís monster universe and made later crossovers possible. Buy it!
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