24 October 2008

Movie Review: Rodan

Rodan (1956)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata.

In our second film from a recent kaiju DVD double feature, we have Sora no Daikaiju Radon (“Rodan, Giant Monster of the Skies”), released in 1957 in the U.S. as Rodan. It was the first Japanese giant monster film released in color, a huge move considering that less than ten percent of the movies made in Japan that year were in color.

Rodan really signaled the beginning of Toho Studios’ monster phase. Godzilla was an enormous success in 1954, but would it necessarily lead to more big monsters? A sequel, Godzilla Raids Again came out only six months later. It made some money, but since it was a quickie done cheaper and with less inspiration than the original, it made little impression on the Japanese film industry. Godzilla wouldn’t come back to the screen until 1962 and King Kong vs. Godzilla.

But Toho Studios wanted to peer a bit more into this big monster business, and thus we got Rodan. Its success ensured monster and science-fiction mania would continue into the crazy ‘60s, when Japan found a unique voice in what had been a specifically American genre during the previous ten years.

Rodan still owes a great deal to the American model of monster movie; it wasn’t until Mothra in 1960 that the Japanese got really, uh, Japanese, with their monsters. But Rodan is an awesome rendition of the American model nonetheless, and one of director Ishiro Honda’s finest films.

It’s easy to imagine at first that Rodan is a giant bug film based on Them! The story opens at a mine near Mt. Aso. Two workers who had been violently feuding vanish in the tunnels. One turns up dead, horribly killed with some sharp instrument. The mine guards search the tunnels for the other man, assuming he’s responsible. They also die horribly. The real culprit is huge larva-like insects called meganuron, who have burrowed out of the lower tunnels when their dormant eggs hatched.

The meganuron scenes are actually damn scary; watching the miners get dragged beneath the water by an unknown attacker while screaming is unnerving, and the night attack in the miners’ barracks contains some of the best suspense moments in Honda’s career. But the movie is only getting warmed up.

An earthquake strikes Mt. Aso and a huge section of it collapses. Shigeru (Kenji Sahara), a miner who had vanished during a meganuron attack, is found walking in a catatonic state in the crater. While doctors desperately try to get him to remember what he’s seen, two strange flying objects moving at super-sonic speeds start harassing the skies over Japan, China, and the Philippines, and even kill a couple with a sonic boom while they picnic on Mt. Aso. Is it a bird, a plane, Superman?

No, it’s Rodan! Or actually, Rodans, a mated pair of Pteranodons with 270-foot wingspans awakened from sleep inside the mountain and grown big and strong on a diet of meganurons. This is what Shigeru witnessed, the hatching, shown to us in a grotesque flashback that H. P. Lovecraft would have appreciated.

Japanese Self-Defense Force jets fly off in pursuit of one of the Rodans to the music of one of Ifukube’s most exciting marches, “Get Rodan!” The aerial duel is thrilling and makes little use of stock footage, relying on model jets and newly shot aerial film. The sequence results in the destruction of a huge bridge in Sasebo, one of special effects director Eiji Tsubaraya’s most intricate models.

But you ain’t seen nothing yet . . .

The Rodans now land in Fukuoka and unleash hell. Tanks try to open fire in the maelstrom the two monsters let loose, but the city gets leveled in a destruction spectacular of some of Tsubaraya’s most thrilling work. People who claim that Japanese monster films have cheaply done effects need to take a look at this scene; there’s no denying the enormous amount of time, money, and effort needed for the details seen here. Now, compare this to the other flying monster film of the year, The Giant Claw, and you’ll see the extent of Tsubaraya’s achievement.

The footage of the Rodans sacking the city would turn up endlessly as stock footage in the lower-budgeted ‘70s monster movies. One shot of a soldier trying to grip onto a tree against the forces of the wind would appear in nearly every Toho science-fiction film made after 1969. I think it even appears in Last Tango in Paris.

Rodan stumbles a bit right before the finish line. The rocket assault on the Rodans’ nest in Mt. Aso goes on for too long with explosion after explosion. Tsubaraya made the same error the next year in The Mysterians, which has the longest damn finale of laser guns firing over and over again. But the actual last moments of Rodan are touching, showing once again that for director Honda, monsters could be something more than monsters. Composer Ifukube’s music is quite wonderful here.

Although it doesn’t have the nutty charm of some of the later monster epics from the Land of the Rising Sun, Rodan is still plain awesome, one of the best giant monster movies of the decade from any country. Honda handles the story with a sobriety and austerity that gives events gravity and realism. I’ve already said plenty about Tsubaraya’s effects, but I’ll state it again: his work here is flat-out stunning in its detail and extent.

Rodan himself (herself?) would go on to have a decent career as a co-star in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, and got to wreck parts of New York in Godzilla: Final Wars. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of the of Great Monster of the Sky. Even meganuron came back, in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.

The DVD contains the American version by the King Brothers released in 1957. The dubbing is good, but the running time is cut by ten minutes and again some of Ifukube’s music is replaced with dull library tracks. What the hell is that all about? A redundant voice-over from Shigeru’s point of view was added, plus a three-minute prologue of stock footage trying to make a vague link between the Rodans’ re-awakening and nuclear testing in the Pacific. (The Japanese dialogue makes a quick claim about this as well, which it seems like a throwaway nod to the nuclear themes that dominate Godzilla.) The American changes add nothing to the story, but they ultimately can’t injure the movie’s entertainment value.