Michael Reviews Rodan (1956)

Following the backlash from critics and audiences alike after Godzilla Raids Again, Toho decided to put the mainline Godzilla franchise on ice (which is appropriate, given the state we last see Godzilla in). Instead, Toho would spend the next few years reestablishing their reputation as the undisputed king of the kaiju genre by releasing several non-Godzilla kaiju films. Toho then retroactively made some of these other Kaiju movies canon to the franchise with these monsters fighting against or alongside Godzilla. The events depicted in some of these films are also directly referenced in various later Godzilla films.  Today, we will be looking at the first of these spin-offs, 1956’s “Rodan”. Rodan brings back legendary director Ishiro Honda and has a 73% Rotten Tomatoes score and a  6.3/10 IMDB score.

 Rodan opens with two coal miners, Yoshi and Goro, engaging in a physical altercation before going into the mine. Both men go missing shortly thereafter.  Shigeru Kawamura, head of security at the mine, heads down to investigate and finds the dismantled remains of Yoshi – but no trace of Goro. A doctor performs an autopsy on Yoshi’s body, and finds large gashes that appear to be done by “a large Japanese sword”. Tension rises as Goro (still missing) is accused of murdering Yoshi and hiding in the mine.  So far, this film does not feel like a Kaiju film, but rather a murder mystery…and honestly, I love it when a film can subvert expectations like this. This film is very suspenseful, and much like 1954’s Godzilla, it has likable characters who have meaningful relationships with each other. I was already fully invested very early in the film.

We see our first Kaiju when Shigeru visits Kiyo (Goro’s sister) and ensures her that he does not believe Goro is responsible for the murder, stating that her brother is a good man despite his temper. This heartwarming moment is interrupted when a large insect larva bursts into the door and tries to attack Kiyo and Shigeru, causing them to flee the scene. The police quickly arrive and chase after the creature, who seeks refuge in the mine – but it kills an officer in the process. After seeing the marks left on Goro’s body, it becomes apparent that one of these larva creatures is responsible for Yoshi’s death, not Goro. Shigeru and some of the officers head into the mine to continue the search for Goro. The men locate his body, but he has suffered the same fate as Yoshi. When they get close to the corpse, they notice that several more larva creatures are surrounding them – but before they are able to attack, an earthquake causes the mine to cave in, killing a couple of the larvae and trapping Shigeru in the mine while the officers are able to escape. When discussing the recent events, Dr. Kashiwagi identifies the giant insect as a Meganulon, an ancient giant dragonfly larva. The recent earthquakes likely created the environment the Meganulon eggs required in order to hatch. While discussing these findings, they spot Shigeru outside and go to him. When the mine collapsed, Shigeru received a head injury and lost all of his memory. He is even unable to remember his sister, Kiyo. 

Shigeru begins treatment to recover his memory, but the doctors are making little progress until Kiyo shows him the eggs that her pet birds have laid. This triggers a memory for him – after the cave-in at the mine, he was surrounded by many Meganulon, ready to attack. Among the Meganulon lies a giant egg that hatches into a giant pterodactyl-like creature, and eats all of the Meganulon. The monsters that have been terrorizing the town were taken out with ease by this new creature. Scientists examine a sample of the egg and are able to determine it is from a Pteranodon, the largest flying species ever recorded. They named this specific one Rodan, and determined that it weighs over 100 tons, and has wings that are “powerful enough to produce sonic booms and shock waves of great destruction”. 

This is when the film transitions to a more traditional Kaiju film – but the build-up was gripping and suspenseful.  Blending multiple genres makes this film more than your run-of-the-mill monster movie. It has suspense, grief, a murder mystery, and even portrays how awful people can be when the town started harassing Kiyo when they believed her brother was responsible for the killings. The film even manages to bring it all back to the Hydrogen bomb with a brief line of dialogue, which explains the bomb test was likely responsible for creating the conditions necessary for Rodan’s awakening. 

Now, with a bigger threat on the loose wreaking havoc, it’s time for the military to get involved. They are able to predict where Rodan is located based on where the nest would be found, and move out to ambush the monster. Rodan emerges, and by flying low to the ground, is able to destroy the military vehicles just with the force of his wings. The rest of the battle is fought with pilots in a “Top Gun” style dogfight full of the amazing practical effects which we have come to expect from a Toho film. Pilots perform impressive evasive maneuvers while hitting Rodan with everything they have.  However, they are still unable to halt the destruction caused by the kaiju…and to make matters worse, a second Rodan appears, and rips buildings down effortlessly by simply using the force created from his wings. After nearly the entire city is leveled, both Rodan leaves the scene, and the military devises a plan to shell the nearby volcano so they may trigger an eruption that will trap the monsters under the lava and rock. After evacuating the city, the plan is set into motion. When one of the Rodan emerges, they trigger the eruption – and, after much effort, the first Rodan is overwhelmed by the fumes and smoke, causing it to fall into a stream of lava. After watching the first Rodan perish, the second one gives up the fight and joins its companion to willingly share the same fate.

While this film does suffer some pacing issues, I found myself engaged throughout most of it. I appreciate that it tried something new by giving it more of a suspenseful and heavy feel than most Kaiju films. Rodan went on to become a fan favorite and appears in four different Showa-era Godzilla films, which is why I felt the need to cover his debut here.  While it isn’t as groundbreaking as Godzilla, Honda was able to give a unique spin in a genre he helped create, which is why I am giving this film the “Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy” rating (please refer to the film rating system page).  Rodan is available to stream on HBO Max.

Next week, I am returning back to the mainline Godzilla series with “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962) which is not available online anywhere, as far as I could tell – so I will likely have to purchase a physical copy!

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