Rodan (1956)

I often wonder what would happen if a prestige director - say Martin Scorsese - came up with the idea of representing poverty as a giant, bloated monster stumbling its way through Manhattan and, after becoming a hit, having every studio demand that he keeps making movies about giant monsters.  Loner driving a taxi?  Biopic about an old-time boxer?  No one wants to see that stuff.  Give us a giant iguana in Central Park and we'll get Pauline Kael to do a write-up about the dangers of unfettered capitalism.  

Thus I have frequently wondered how IshirĂ´ Honda, who had worked with Akira Kurosawa, felt about being pigeonholed as the guy who made giant monster films.  I know his successor, Jun Fukuda, hated it.  What I also know is that neither of them hated what these movies did to their bank accounts, and neither did Toho, who in 1956 was willing to do a first: finance a giant monster film in color, something it didn't even do for Godzilla Raids Again after Godzilla broke box office records.  Of course, none other than Honda was called in to direct it, with Eiji Tsuburaya handling the effects. 

When a part of a coal mine near Mount Aso unexpectedly floods colliery engineer Shigeru Kawamura (Kenji Sahara) is called in to investigate.  He finds one of the two men missing in the accident dead and apparently stabbed with a sharp object, which leads to a manhunt for the other, whose sister Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa) happens to be Shigeru's girlfriend.  Further investigation reveals giant, clawed larvae that turn out to be juvenile dragonfly nymphs called Meganulon.  Attempts to clear the mine of them lead to Shigeru getting trapped during a cave-in and then emerging with temporary amnesia.

When his memory comes back it is of a giant egg hatching a winged reptile which the authorities label Rodan (Haruo Nakajima).  The creature soon becomes a menace to airspace as it can travel at supersonic speeds and likes picking fights with jets and in general wreaking havoc on the local infrastructure. With the seemingly unstoppable creature causing severe loss of life and Mount Aso itself preparing for an eruption, Professor Kyuichiro Kashiwagi (Akihiko Hirata) is brought in to assist the Japanese Defense Forces in any way he can, especially as another threat begins to loom.

Rodan, unlike Mothra, never got any sequels.  He appeared in many of the later Godzilla films, was always one of the main monsters, but as for solo films this was it; not even a remake.  It took forever for Toho to even get around to doing a proper restoration of the Japanese version of the film, with people in North America having to be satisfied with the badly dubbed version that also rearranged several scenes in the film and made it somewhat incomprehensible.  That's a shame because not only did Honda and Tsuburaya take some chances, with 1950s effects, on presenting a flying menace, but they pretty much succeeded.  

The Meganulon look great, although it's understandable that it wasn't until the 2000s that we saw the actual giant dragonfly forms.  They are the scary part of the picture, and it is obvious that Honda took a few cues from Them! for the early part of the film.  The second half leaves behind scary for action, and the surprise for me was how good the special effects have held up in this film over the years.  Prior to watching this I had rewatched Terror of Mechagodzilla, and by 1975 it looked like monsters rampaging through a miniature railroad town.  Black and white photography helped hide some of the flaws in the original Godzilla, but Rodan manages to make everything look good in full color, even if many of the tanks are still obvious wind-up miniatures.  

Honda also brought along some of his regulars from the Godzilla movies.  Kenji Sahara and Akihiko Hirata were always dependable in their roles film after film and it's nice to see them back at the beginning before things got too cheesy.  In fact, that is one of the best things about Rodan.  It's still at a point where Honda, and Toho, took these movies seriously, and were not trying to dumb them down for children.  Another advantage of being able to see the original Japanese cut is also that it is significantly more violent than what we got see on Saturday morning TV in America. 

Rodan (1956)
Time: 74 minutes
Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata, Haruo Nakajima
Director: IshirĂ´ Honda



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