Some interesting facts about RODAN:
1. It was Toho’s first Kaiju movie in color.
2. It was a big hit in the United States.
3. I watched the American version.
Okay, not the most interesting facts in the world but all three of them are important to understand both the movie and this review. (If I just wanted to impress you with something awesome I would have told you that George Takei does voice-over work for the American release.) I watched the American version of the film because that’s what Netflix has streaming and I didn’t want to wait for the DVD, and there are subtle differences between the two. (At least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me.) I don’t like watching the dubbed version of foreign movies. I’d much rather watch the original language version and read the bottom of the screen, but I was interested in seeing how the American release of a film worked without the added effort to hire Perry Mason to film new scenes.
It’s actually that first point up above, however, that I think plays the biggest role in how one enjoys the movie. In my review of GOJIRA / GODZILLA the other day, I mentioned that I was surprised at how dark and serious the movie was. Having brushed against, rather than fully engaged with Kaiju films over the years, my thoughts on the genre were largely concerned with men in rubber suits stomping over tiny city sets. That exists in GOJIRA, but the whole tone of the film was much more thoughtful than I was expecting. Perhaps that raised my hopes too high for RODAN, which is also directed by Ishiro Honda (or perhaps it’s the subtle differences in the American cut) and also features a dinosaur-esque monster coming up from beneath the surface to terrorize a city. Taken superficially, the most apparent difference between GODZILLA and RODAN is that the latter film (despite being released only two years later), is the addition of color.
You might think that such a positive technological advance as moving from black and white to color would only help a movie, but it actually hurts this early Kaiju movie.
First, nothing amplifies unrealistic effects like color. From watching a billion Doctor Who episodes, I can speak from experience when I say that rubber suited monsters are just more believable (or less unbelievable) in black and white. With a severely limited palette, you can obscure the weaknesses better, but when you amp up the color, suddenly it’s just that much harder to believe that we’ve got a 150-foot monster stomping on an actual car, and not Larry in a rubber suit stepping on a toy.
The black and white color scheme of GOJIRA helps to give the film a darker, moodier, almost noir-ish feel to the city scenes. I think it works well with the film’s sense of collective guilt and insecurity. In RODAN, however, all that color makes it hard to hide the weaknesses and works against a somber mood. We’re in color, baby, let’s see some sh*t blow up!
And blow up it does. RODAN starts off with a keen interest in story, but by the end, this is a loud, balls-out piece of explosion porn, and I think that has something to do with how the introduction of color altered either the story itself, or at least its presentation.
Like GOJIRA, Honda builds this film off the idea that humans are pushing too far and are risking being rebuked by the planet its carelessly destroying. RODAN takes place in a mining town and the miners are starting to dig too deep into the earth. If you’re like me, of course, the second you hear of people digging too deep you’re expecting a Balrog to come up out of the darkness, but the monsters in RODAN are more natural. First, we get giant insects attacking the miners first, and village soon after.
There’s some nice story work here in the opening of the film, as Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) believes one of the first two missing miners is innocent while everyone else believes him guilty of killing the other missing miner when he shows up dead. Shigeru isn’t believed because he’s in love with Goro’s sister, Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa). Kiyo is super over-emotional but it’s understandable given that everyone thinks her brother is a murderer and then giant insects start appearing at your doorway.
Soon, however, Shigeru and Kiyo are largely lost as the film turns into an explosion fest. Shigeru is injured in an earthquake and comes back with amnesia, but when he remembers what he saw beneath the earth (two large eggs that birth the Rodans), this becomes a military movie. A team goes to check the Rodans out and then it’s just bang bang bang boom boom boom bang bang bang. Guns aren’t effective in stopping the giant dinosaur birds, so the military ends up trying to trap the Rodans underground by blowing up a volcano. They fail to bury them but the Rodans are poisoned and weakened from all the bombs and gas and when one of them dies in the volcano’s lava, the other one sticks around, unwilling to live without its mate.
It’s a rather powerful ending, speaking to the moving connection the two Rodans have for one another, but that angle needed to be developed more fully for the ending to have a truly thunderous impact. As it is, it’s only Shigeru and Kiyo who really seems to understand what the deaths of the Rodans mean on a personal level. Everyone else is like, “Huh, we did it. What’s for lunch?”
While not the all-time classic that GOJIRA is, RODAN is still a fine film with a fantastic ending.
And lots and lots of missiles.
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels and collections, including Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.