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Rodan - Review

A Review by Mike Bogue

3½ Stars - Very Good

(a.k.a. Rodan The Flying Monster)

Direction: Ishiro Honda

Screenplay: Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata

Music:  Akira Ifukube

Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburya

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Rodan Still. "Look – up in the sky!”

“It’s a bird!”

“It’s a plane!”

“No!” screams a hysterically overacting extra. “It’s RODAN!”

Rodan (or Rodan The Flying Monster) is one of the very best monster epics from Toho’s Golden Age.  In fact, Rodan was the third daikaiju to be seen in a Japanese monster movie, and the second to have a movie all to himself (actually themselves, as the movie features two Rodans).

Many commentators have noted that Rodan seems heavily influenced by then current Western monster-on-the-loose epics.  That may be true, but it in no way takes away from the film’s first-rate craftsmanship.

The same “Big Three” who gave the world Godzilla – Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Akira Ifubuke – once again teamed up, this time to bring us the first color kaiju eiga to hit the screen; speaking of same, the color photography here is gorgeous.

The film is really two movies in one, of course. The first part, sort of a mini-movie, takes place in a rural Japanese mining community and involves hippo-sized prehistoric larvae that, at first, start doing away with mine workers.  Later, one of the larva makes its unwelcome presence known in the community’s living quarters, and then all havoc breaks loose – women screaming, miners running, policemen shooting, larvae clawing.

As a kid, this part of the movie seemed pleasantly spooky.  Just what kind of Thing was loose in that damp, dark mine shaft that was causing all these disappearances?  One particularly capable scene features a miner desperately trying to call for help on one of the mine phones as a large, ominous shadow engulfs him; the screen fades to black as we hear his scream.  It’s the only “horror moment” in the movie, but one that is highly potent.

The prehistoric larvae themselves are well-realized via life-size costumes occupied by several men – the movie conceals the fact that humans are operating the mandibles and crab-like claws.  In some scenes, a miniature larva is used, and this is fairly effective, especially for a fifties film.  Apparently inspired by the Western “Big Bug” subgenre, the opening giant larvae mini-movie compares favorably to its American counterparts, even if it is shorter.

Rodan Still.

But Rodan is mostly a movie about two gigantic pterodactyl-like monsters unleashed after a mine-related earthquake.  You see, the hero who killed the larvae in the mine shaft found himself trapped inside the earth after the quake.  Later, found wandering in shock, he remains in a hypnotic stupor.

When his girl friend hands him a bird’s nest filled with tiny eggs starting to hatch, the hero remembers having wandered into a gigantic subterranean cavern where he watched Rodan emerge from a colossal prehistoric egg.  This proves effective enough, but then in a nice added touch, we see several prehistoric larvae on a nearby land shelf, the insects clearly dwarfed by the newly-born Rodan, and the hungry monster begins to eat them.

Interestingly, authorities consider Rodan to be a UFO as he wings his way across the world’s skies at supersonic speeds, somewhat inexplicably leaving a vapor trail in his wake.  Of course, the highlight of the film arrives when Rodan attacks Sasebo City.  Here Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects are allowed free and wonderful reign:  Rodan’s tornadic winds whip buildings apart, send cars and busses tumbling through the air, uproot both trees and humans.

The tanks during this debacle are particularly convincing as they blast at one of the Rodans that has landed.  A well-articulated puppet Rodan head is used for close-ups as shells explode around its screeching beak; meanwhile, its mate flies overhead, pummeling the city with gale-force winds.  In one of the best scenes, we see people panicking in a building’s windows as rubble rains from above – a great effect on a par with anything done in the West at the time.

Indeed, the entire Sasebo City sequence is a fabulous tour-de-force for Tsuburaya, and one of the best examples of kaiju eiga “urban renewal.”  The miniatures are intricately detailed, the destruction effects vivid, and the Rodans suitably monstrous.  It’s no accident that in the future this sequence would be occasionally mined for stock footage.

So enthralled was I as a kid by this sequence that I spent weeks afterward drawing primitive pictures of Rodan blowing hapless cities to smithereens!  I also remember my brother finding one aftermath scene amusing.  We see a city aflame at night, and in the foreground a neon sign still flashes.  My brother said, “Yeah, like anything would still be standing!”

Then, of course, there is the tragic ending – tragic not for the humans, of course, but rather for the two Rodans.  Missile bombardment causes a volcano to erupt, and one of the Rodans gets caught in its lava flow.  The second Rodan refuses to leave, instead choosing to perish along with its mate -- this selfless kaiju devotion is bound to bring a lump to the throat of every right-thinking giant monster fan. 

Rodan Still.

As a kid, I took it quite seriously, and it did seem a bit sad.  Of course, my older brother sarcastically quipped, “Oh, yeah, they’ve killed thousands of people and now we’re supposed to feel sorry for them.”  (Like most big brothers, he was a bit of a cynic.)

Models are employed for Rodan’s flying scenes, while Haruo Nakajima essays the part in the suitmation monster costume.  In addition to the destruction of Sasebo City, we are treated to many other fine effects.  One of the most memorable concerns a dispatched Jeep.  Rodan zooms overhead, causing the vehicle to flip through the air several times before smashing into a large rock – in a great detail, we see the convincing legs of the Jeep driver protrude from the wreck as the Jeep meets its fate.

Now some may quibble and say that the story isn’t much and that the characters aren’t terribly well-developed.  Well, yes and no.  The characters are sketched in well enough for a giant monster vehicle, and the story is unpretentious and to the point.

Of course, for me, Rodan occupies a special compartment of my nostalgia box, because it is the first monster movie I can remember seeing.  I was probably five years old – I know I hadn’t started first grade yet – when I watched the movie on a TV Friday night Late Show with my Dad and older brother.  Obviously, the film made a powerful impression on me, and even after all these years, it still provides grand entertainment. 

Of course, Rodan provides terrific spectacle for giant monster fans of all ages.

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