Rodan (1956)

For all the amazing movies and TV shows that have been reissued and spruced up, we are unfortunately between editions of Rodan, the first Japanese monster movie to be made in color. The DVD is out of print and going for silly money right now; a new Blu-ray is inevitable, some might say, but none of the usual suspects have announced one. Mothra seems to be getting all the non-Godzilla love right now.

I enjoyed prepping our son a little last night before this morning’s presentation. The big thing to remember when watching this movie is that it was not intended as part of Godzilla’s universe. It’s a stand-alone piece, and you might argue that Rodan’s been diminished as only a sidekick since he resurfaced in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster eight years later. But the other fun thing about Rodan is that Toho’s giant monster formula was nowhere near set in stone yet. It’s not a unique experience – it owes quite a lot to standard American disaster movies, quite obviously War of the Worlds – but it doesn’t have that “yeah, yeah, get on with it” feel that a mid-period Godzilla has.

What it does have from just about the outset is one of our heroes, Kenji Sahara. He’s in so many of the Toho monster films – I count 19 of them through 1975 – because director Ishiro Honda loved working with him so much. Add in his frequent appearances in the Ultra-series, and is it any wonder that anybody who loves Japanese films from the period thinks the world of the guy? Even if he does look like a baby in 1956.

Anyway, Rodan begins with what turns out to be a delightful, disgusting swerve. The film is set in a village around a big mining operation on Kyushu, and it looks like it’s building up to a reveal that a giant monster is behind a cave-in. We paused early on to point out the very interesting difference between this film and the Ultra-series, which is clearly intended for children. That show may occasionally swerve into more adult territory, which is why I chose to publish a post about it earlier today, but at its core it is a kid show. But Rodan spends some fascinating time with the fallout of the cave-in. Two miners go missing; they’d been brawling earlier before the shift began. The body of one is recovered. He was murdered; the suspect cannot be found. The film lingers on his widow’s grief and fury, and the way the community shuns the sister of the suspected killer, in a way that children’s series just don’t do.

We’re expecting a giant monster to show up and clarify things, but what we get, while huge, is much smaller. The killer is a huge insect about twelve feet long, with ugly pincers and a bulletproof carapace. It’s horrifying in an effective and wild way, because giant monsters are something we can enjoy watching onscreen, but they’re honestly a little hard to conceptualize as a genuine threat. They would come, destroy, and instantly move on like tornadoes. This huge bug feels more solid and repulsive. Okay, so it looks like an Eiji Tsubaraya suit monster, but it’s remarkably easy to believe in if you let it.

Rodan shows up not long after, completely divorced – at first – from the business on Kyushu. We understand later where it’s tied in. Rodan hatched in the same hidden underground chamber where the huge insects had lived. It eats them all and then flies out looking for other food.

Oh, did I say “it”? There’s more than one. The kid popped his lid, I mean just jumped off the sofa. “There are TWO?! Since when are there two?!” There were always two; the Godzilla series retconned it.

What follows is a – mostly – completely splendid mix of great special effects with casts of hundreds of extras. You can see the money that Toho put on screens for this that they most emphatically did not a dozen years later. The miniature work is completely delightful, because they actually replicated the same cities and bridges where the live action crew filmed. It comes to something of an anticlimax, unfortunately, as military vs. monsters stories often do. These Rodans are far less hardy than Godzilla’s sidekick; they are eventually killed by a combination of volcanic gasses and lava. But getting to that point, we have to suffer through about four minutes of the military firing rockets into the ground. The movie’s very short, only about 80 minutes, but it starts feeling incredibly long when we’ve got nothing but grass and rocks exploding.

The kid was absolutely pleased. Sure, he enjoys the mayhem and far larger scale of the later Godzilla epics more, but this is still a rousing crowd-pleaser. I certainly hope we’ll see an upgraded edition very soon. I also want a Criterion Atragon while we’re at it. I don’t care how many amazing movies and TV shows have been reissued and spruced up; I’m still greedy.

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