Rodan/Sora no Daikaiju Radon (1956/1957) ***
It could be argued, quite convincingly I think, that this movie, and not the direct sequel made the year before, was Toho’s real follow-up to Godzilla: King of the Monsters / Gojira. Whereas Gigantis the Fire Monster / Godzilla Raids Again / Gojira no Gyakushu was shot on the cheap and entrusted to the insanely prolific hack director Motoyoshi Oda, Rodan/Sora no Daikaiju Radon had the full weight of Toho’s money machine behind it, and was directed by Ishiro Honda, the mastermind behind Gojira. Unfortunately, Rodan suffers from the sort of misguided attempts at one-upmanship that so often hamstring sequels, even though it is not one. Watching this movie-- which, it must be admitted, is fairly impressive when examined solely on its own merits-- it is difficult to escape the image of a gang of Toho execs sitting around a conference table somewhere, saying, “We’ll do Gojira again, but this time, we’ll have two monsters, and they’ll fly! It’ll be great! And just to show those bastards over at Daiei who’s boss, we’ll shoot it in color, too!” Daiei, you see, had just released Warning from Space/The Mysterious Satellite/Uchujin Tokyo ni Arawaru, the first color kaiju eiga, and I have a hard time believing that this action by a studio that would later become Toho’s only serious competitor in the monster movie market was far from the minds of Toho’s bosses when the decisions regarding how to handle this film were made.
But initially, Rodan doesn’t seem like it will resemble Godzilla: King of the Monsters at all. Rather, its first act looks more like Toho’s answer to the seminal atomic bug movie Them!. As the movie opens (we’ll disregard the stock-footage prologue pieced together from H-bomb test film that was tacked on by American distributors DCA, if that’s alright with you), Shaft #8 at the mine that is the cornerstone of the local economy in the village where Rodan is set has just been extended much farther into the earth than the original design had called for. It seems that the vein of coal in Shaft #8 is much richer than had been anticipated, and the company that owns the mine naturally wants to take full advantage of this piece of serendipity. Now, if they had only consulted a veteran bad movie junkie like El Santo, they would have been told beforehand that this is always a bad idea, and that whenever a mining company does this, they end up unearthing more monsters than coal (or silver, or whatever). But they did not take this sensible precaution, so naturally, the shaft unexpectedly floods, and when the bodies of the “flood victims” are recovered, they turn out not to have drowned, but to have been cut to pieces by something big and nasty.
At first, a miner named Goro is suspected of committing the killings. After all, he was down in the tunnel when it flooded, and his body was never found. This makes life rather difficult for mining foreman Shigeru (kaiju eiga regular Kenji Sahara, who, among other things, went on to play the Minister of Defense in the Heisei Godzilla movies), because Goro was his friend, and he is engaged to Goro’s sister, Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa, from The Mysterians and The H-Man). Fortunately for them (I suppose), all suspicion of Goro is dispelled when a scorpion-caterpillar thing the size of a small car appears in the village one night. The police, reinforced by soldiers from a nearby garrison, pursue the monster to-- that’s right-- Shaft #8, but they are unable to kill it with gunfire; it takes a head-on collision with a speeding train of coal-carts to kill the thing. Down in the tunnel, the men find Goro’s body and, much to their chagrin, another giant bug! This time, a cave-in bails the troops out of danger, but Shigeru is trapped inside when it happens. A subsequent earthquake only makes the job of the men charged with rescuing him seem even more hopeless.
At about this time, East and Southeast Asia experience a rash of UFO sightings. In a montage that is going to sound an awful lot like the early ship-wrecking career of Godzilla, it is revealed that a number of aircraft have been destroyed by something huge that flies at supersonic speeds, and yet is capable of fantastic feats of aerobatics. At the same time, several towns and villages are seriously damaged by shockwaves associated with sonic booms. (The movie doesn’t explicitly make this point, but can you imagine how massive an object would have to be in order to produce trans-sonic shockwaves strong enough to level a building?) While the usual team of scientists works to figure out what’s going on, Shigeru turns up, apparently having been freed from his subterranean prison by the aftershocks of the earlier quake. The man suffers from amnesia when he is first found, but it isn’t too long before something unexpectedly jogs his memory. Kiyo keeps birds, you see, and one of her birds has a clutch of eggs. When she shows him the nest one day, it all comes flooding back to Shigeru.
While he was trapped in the mine, Shigeru saw something extraordinary. He stumbled upon a huge underground chamber, infested with those big scorpion-caterpillar things, the far end of which was dominated by a huge egg. And wouldn’t you know it, Shigeru was just in time to witness the hatching of said egg into a pterosaur-like creature of astonishing size. (Lead scientist Dr. Kashiwagi [Akihiko Hirata, who played Dr. Serizawa in Gojira and went on to appear-- never as the same character twice-- in nearly every Godzilla movie from Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster on] will later tell us that the monster has a wingspan in excess of 500 feet. Like the 400-foot height attributed to the titular beast in the American version of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this is a considerable exaggeration. Toho credits Rodan with the same 50-meter [165-foot] height as Godzilla, and with a wingspan on the order of 100 meters, or about 330 feet.) The restoration of Shigeru’s memory conveniently coincides with the discovery of the first photographic evidence of the UFO’s nature, a picture taken by one of its victims that seems to suggest the wing of a vast bird. It doesn’t take long for the scientists studying the problem of the UFO to get in touch with Shigeru, and when they put their heads together, they succeed in tracing the creature (which Kashiwagi confidently identifies as belonging to a little-known species of super-pterosaur called Rodan) to its lair in the rim of a volcano not far from the mine.
Did I say “creature?” That ought to have been plural, as it soon comes out that Shigeru’s monster has a mate, and the two Rodans waste no time in attacking a major city (Fukuoka, I think), wreaking immense destruction with a combination of brute force, sonic booms, hurricane-force winds produced by their wings, and (in one shot that I had completely forgotten about before I re-watched Rodan for this review) even some sort of breath-weapon. This is a really good scene, but I have to say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters does it better, and Honda’s insistence upon exactly reproducing the composition of some of the shots from Godzilla’s climactic attack on Tokyo only draws attention to that fact.
The Rodans surprisingly drop out of sight for a while after this orgy of destruction, and the scientists conclude that they are, in essence, sleeping off dinner. This would seem to be the perfect opportunity to strike back at the monsters, while they are too fat and sluggish to do much about it. The strategy that the authorities ultimately adopt could be described as an attempt to enlist the aid of mother nature. The military will surround the rim of the volcano where the Rodans are shacked up with tanks and artillery and set up a coordinated bombardment from land and air, with the aim of burying the monsters in their caves and, hopefully, triggering a small eruption of the volcano to finish them off. In what is surely the second most surprising development of the movie, the plan actually works according to expectations! This is followed in short order by the most surprising development of the movie, in which Honda and screenwriters Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata say explicitly what was only implied in the endings of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and King Kong-- that the monsters have personalities, feelings, and what could perhaps be called interior lives. This scene, however, is not affecting in the same way as the deaths of the monsters in the aforementioned films are. Having never seen the Japanese original, I can’t say at whose feet the blame for this ought to be laid, but at least in the American version, the final scene is marred by a distracting and wildly overwrought voice-over by Shigeru that mainly serves to render a strikingly original and potentially moving ending rather silly instead.
Interestingly enough, what actually ends up hurting Rodan the most is the feature that its creators probably saw as its greatest selling-point, the color cinematography. Rather than making the movie more impressive, it has the effect of drawing attention to the cheesiness of many of the special effects, the amazingly crappy model tanks in particular. It also undermines any effort on the part of the filmmakers to inject into Rodan even a hint of the gravity that the first Godzilla film has. It would perhaps not be going to far to say that the flashy color cinematography gives the movie something of a carnival atmosphere, though it must be admitted that Rodan does not go nearly so far in this direction as the kaiju eiga of the 60’s and 70’s.
The last point I want to make about Rodan concerns the dubbing. In contrast to Godzilla: King of the Monsters or the later King Kong vs. Godzilla, Rodan did not suffer the indignity of having scads of new footage with an American cast shoehorned into it. While this saves us from having to sit through endless mind-numbing scenes of clueless or condescending white people standing around pretending to be involved in the story, it also rules out the possibility of re-using the interpreter trick that Gojira’s American distributors employed so impressively (well, most of the time...), and the movie thus takes its place in the not-so-proud tradition of Japanese movies being saddled with oafish, cartoony dubbing. What’s remarkable in this case is that fact that an enormous number of the film’s male characters had their voices dubbed by George Takei, of “Star Trek” fame (he played Lt. Sulu, the helmsman, on the original series). The most conspicuous character to use Takei’s voice is Dr. Kashiwagi, but keep your ears open, and you’ll notice that he’s everywhere.