KAIJU KONNECTION: Rodan (1956)

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I grew up on Godzilla and Gamera movies. I just could not get enough of them and would scour the weekly TV Guide, trying to find any listings for these movies to be shown the following week. This was prior to VCR’s, so if I wanted to see the movie, I would have to be available at the time of broadcast or be made to wait until the next time it was put into rotation. Ahhh…the growing pains of being a child in the 1970’s.

One of my favorites of the Toho movies is the 1956 film RODAN, or Sora no Daikaijū Radon as it was known by its original Japanese title. This film was released in Japan on December 26, 1956 and then later in the United States on August 6, 1957. Personally I prefer the Japanese versions over the United States’ dubs but thankfully, in the case of RODAN, care was taken to maintain its serious tone and some of the editing actually helped the pacing of the film.

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This film has stood the test of time and even after all these years, this movie is just as enjoyable as it was when I first saw it in the 1970’s. The story is strong and the miniature special effects work is still among the best ever put on film. This was Toho’s third giant monster movie (behind GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN) and the first that they did in color. They went all out with the effects and in fact, some were so good that they were re-used many years later in other Toho giant monster movies of the 60’s and 70’s! The only shame is that widescreen wasn’t created until well after this movie was made as I think the scope of this film really could’ve benefited from it.

Rodan has appeared in many films over the years (seven to be exact), though he looked best in the original. In this film the monster has a demonic look, with its deep black eyes, horns on its head and reddish-brown skin. In later incarnations, his design was changed to be more kid-friendly. Details such as human-like eyes and a softened beak were added with the hope of being less scary to the target audience of the time…children. Though the “fire Rodan” of GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II from 1993 looked decent, his appearance in 2004’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS was a travesty. His CGI appearance in the 2019 American film GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, though cool looking, in my opinion, did not look as good as he did in 1956.

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To start, I am going to go over the story of the film. I will be referencing the Japanese version for this synopsis (and then later discuss the differences from the US release). I will also include fun film facts throughout the synopsis. The source for this viewing is the now out-of-print DVD double feature of RODAN and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS from Classic Media, released in 2012.

Our story begins at Mt. Aso, Kyushu, Japan. It is the start of the work day for many at the Kitamatsu coal mine. Tension is running high between two of the workers, Yoshizo and Goro. These two men have been reprimanded for fighting on the job multiple times. Is it the pressure of working so far underground or something much worse?

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A frantic call comes in to engineering saying that the west pit has flooded which is mysterious as there is no known underground water there. Upon entering the mine not only do the engineers find the mine flooded but Yoshi and Goro have gone missing.

While exploring the flooded pit the investigators find the body of Yoshi floating in the water face down, eerily lit from below showing the water is red with his blood. His body is brought back and the examination reveals that he died from wounds made by something very sharp and Goro is the prime suspect.

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Shigeru goes to see Goro’s sister, Kiyo, who is visibly upset at not only the fact that her brother is missing but for the grumblings that she is hearing that her brother is responsible for Yoshizo’s death.

The investigation of Goro’s whereabouts continues in the dark depths of the mine by one investigator and two miners. They hear some random splashing up ahead and all three men tie themselves together for safety as they go further into the mine in chest deep water. They are suddenly startled by some loud chattering sounds coming from up ahead. The 1st miner is then pulled under the water screaming from something unseen below the water’s surface. The investigator shoots at the water before being pulled under himself. The last miner frantically cuts himself free from the rope binding the three men together. He is able to make it to the emergency telephone just as he himself is brutally murdered. The only hint to the assailant is a large dark shadow on the wall. The ensuing autopsies reveal that these three men died by the same weapon as Yoshizo.

The harassment of Kiyo continues as now Goro is being blamed for the latest murders. Shigeru shows up to comfort her, assuring her that he doesn’t believe Goro is capable of such brutality. A dog is heard howling in the background just before a huge, insect-like creature enters her house. The source of the killings has been revealed…the meganulon have arrived! The police try to stop the creature but their bullets have no effect. The village goes into full panic mode as word of the car-sized monster spreads.

The police chase the creature into the mountains and try again using their guns against it, unsuccessfully. The monster leaps off of the hill, killing two policemen before escaping into the mine. The body count is now up to six. The injuries on the officers are the same as with the previous four victims.

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The military is called in and they enter the mine armed with machine guns in search of the meganulon. Not only do they find Goro’s body but also many more of the creatures living in the darkness of the mine. The machine guns are useless against the exoskeletons of the meganulon and it isn’t until they release a coal-filled tram-car into one of the creatures that they are able to actually kill one. The continued use of the machine guns causes a part of the mine to collapse, not only killing some of the creatures but some of the men as well. Shigeru is among the missing or dead.

After a series of earthquakes, scientists go to try to locate the source. On their way they come to an area where the ground has completely collapsed upon itself. At the bottom of the newly formed ravine a man is seen wandering aimlessly; it is Shigeru. He has lost his memory and is in a state of shock. All efforts possible are made by doctors and friends to help him remember what happened to him.

Pictures of dinosaurs and of one of the meganulon are used to help bring back his memory. I am not sure why dinosaurs pictures are used because as of this point, dinosaurs have not even come up anywhere else in the film.

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As reports come in of volcanic activity at Mt. Aso, people start seeing UFO’s flying at supersonic speeds. A fighter jet is sent to investigate and the pilot reports the object’s speed as being 1.5 times faster than his jet was flying. The UFO suddenly changes course in mid-pursuit, flying right at the pursuant jet causing it to explode. We get a quick glimpse of the UFO…a giant flying reptile! Ken Kuronuma, who wrote the original story for the film, based this scene on an actual incident that happened in 1948 in Kentucky when Captain Thomas Mantell, a pilot for the Kentucky Air National Guard, died in a crash while pursuing what was thought to be a UFO.

The initial thought is that perhaps it was a flying saucer or a foreign secret weapon. Next a report comes in that a British airline has gone missing. Reports start coming in from all over the world of the mysterious flying object. We then see a young couple going to Mt. Aso to take pictures. As the girl poses she sees the flying object and as it flies over them we see a huge shadow, before both are taken in a gust of wind.

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Their camera is found, as well as one of the girl’s shoes, and the film developed. All of the pictures show a happy couple except one, that appears to show the wing and foot of a giant bird. The scientists compare the photo with a drawing of a Pteranodon, who happens to be in the exact same pose allowing the picture to be matched up perfectly. The scientists do question whether it can actually be a Pteranodon because at the size they were when they lived, they could never take down a jet.

We then go to Shigeru’s room, where he is sitting and sketching the mine tunnels. Kiyo, who is taking care of him, notices that the birds that they have in a cage have laid two eggs. She shows them to Shigeru and one starts to hatch, triggering a horrible memory of when he was back in the caves. He remembers seeing a giant egg, that also hatches. The giant reptile that is within starts feeding immediately on the meganulons. The darkness of the scene is quite scary, as Kiyo has trouble calming Shigeru down. He now remembers everything, and is able to identify the Pteranodon.

A search team goes back into the mines, to look at the cavern where Shigero saw the giant egg. When they arrive they find that a cave in has covered much of the interior of the cavern, but are able to find one piece of the eggshell. By using the curvature of the piece, they are able to determine the size of the egg. There is a consistency problem here as the eggshell piece that they find in the cavern is much smaller than the one seen being analyzed in the lab. After finding the piece, the search team has to rush out of the cave in a hurry as there is a small earthquake and rocks start to fall from the ceiling. Where did the much bigger piece come from?

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Through computer calculations they are able to determine that the Pteranodon, now called Rodan, has a wingspan of 270 feet and weighs of 100 tons. The Professor also surmises that as a result of nuclear bomb testing, Rodan may have been awakened after being in a state of hibernation. A team is sent out to see if they can find where Rodan is.

They come to a spot where trees and debris are being thrown up from the forest floor. When they climb to a better vantage point, they see the head and upper wings of Rodan, above the tree line. Rodan lets out a cry before taking off. One person, sent to tell headquarters that they found the monster, speeds off in a Jeep, attracting Rodan’s attention. In an amazing special effects sequence, Rodan flies over the moving Jeep and the force of wind from his wings is so great that it lifts the jeep in the air, smashing it against a bunch of rocks on the side of the road. The detail of this sequence is so great that when the Jeep crashes against the rocks, you can even see the driver’s legs actually crumple up in the crash.

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A jet squadron is then sent to pursue Rodan. It doesn’t take them long to find him and an aerial battle begins. The jets fire at Rodan, but the missiles have no effect. In retaliation Rodan flies back at the jets and as he flies over one, it explodes. One of the remaining jet pilots report that Rodan is flying over Sasebo and he is ordered to lead him out to the ocean. The air raid sirens then go off in Sasebo, causing everyone to start evacuating. Rodan then heads towards Saikai Bridge, in another amazing special effects sequence that could’ve been disasterous.

As the actor in the Rodan suit, Haruo Nakajima, got near the miniature bridge, the wire holding him in the air snapped and he fell from a height of 25 feet into the water. Originally he was supposed to just “fly” over the bridge forcing it to collapse from the force of his wings. Instead, they decided to use this footage to their advantage and briefly show the actor falling into the water, with the resulting tidal wave destroying everything on the shores. Then, Rodan is seen coming out of the water on the opposite side, like he swam under the bridge, and taking off into the air. Jets are even shown flying under the bridge, in another cool special effects shot.

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Behind the scenes shot showing the level of detail that went into the city buildings.

Rodan then circles around, flies over the bridge causing it to collapse in one of the best miniature effects sequences ever filmed. The attention to detail here is absolutely stunning and every aspect of the scene is convincing. The jets then follow Rodan as he heads towards Fukuoka. It seemed that after the actor’s wire snapped, heavier wires were used as they became more apparent later in the film.

Air raid sirens are again heard as Rodan approaches. The military is then shown entering the city as everything is boarded up and people run for their lives. Eiji Tsuburaya again shines as Rodan attacks the city. As he flies over the city scape building are blown to pieces and vehicles such as cars and buses are thrown into the air. The level of detail in these miniatures are some of the best ever seen. The shingles on houses blow into the air individually in a very believable fashion. Rodan is then shown landing on a building, the Iwataya Department Store, that had to be reinforced with steel so that the weight of the actor in the suit would be properly supported.

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The military attacks but with little effect. Again, these scenes are filled with details that make everything so believable. Nakajima’s movements are so smooth and animal like that Rodan as a monster is quite convincing. He reportedly studied the movements of modern day birds to help in his portrayal. During these scenes there are explosions not only on the ground but in the air as well and jets can be seen flying in the background. These little details just make everything so much more convincing and there is always a lot of activity going on in every special effects scene.

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In one scene that was never explained, or ever repeated with the character, Rodan is then seen spewing smoke from his mouth, similar to Godzilla’s atomic breath but without the glow. This does seem to make more buildings blow to bits but again, it is a weapon that he never used after this appearance.

Just when it doesn’t seem like it could get any worse, a second Rodan shows up. Though they didn’t build two full size suits for actors, they were able to combine the models used for flying scenes with the actor in the suit. Also, some scenes of the first Rodan would then be shown in reverse, representing the second. Even though it was an obvious cost-cutting move, it was a great way to use everything they had. After showing the city of Fukuoka in flames the Rodans head to Mt. Aso, an active volcano.

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A reconnaissance mission is sent to Mt. Aso and after seeing a lot of bones on the side of the mountain, they locate the Rodans. A plan is devised to blow up the mountain, burying the flying reptiles inside. The area around Aso is evacuated and the military gets in place. The attack is another highlight in Tsuburaya’s career. The explosions on the mountain look fantastic, blowing a lot of debris in the air with each blast. Some of these scenes would’ve looked great in 3D as the dirt comes right at the camera in some spots. Many of the effects shots were filmed using different cameras to film different angles. That way he could get multiple scenes to edit in from one take.

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Just when it seems that the Rodans are going to be buried, Mt. Aso erupts and both escape. Instead of flying away though one seems to be overcome quickly by the gasses and falls to the ground as the second flies over it. The one on the ground slowly dies as it succumbs the to fire and lava. The second Rodan, rather than living alone, allows itself to perish, in one of the most heartwarming endings of any monster movie. In another special effects scene that went wrong, that actually worked to the benefit of the scene, one of the wires holding the second Rodan snapped causing the prop to shake in flight. The scene actually looks as though the Rodan is struggling to stay airborne before also succumbing.

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The second Rodan, succumbing to the flames and gas.

RODAN continued the atomic bomb testing storyline started with the 1954 film GODZILLA. Though it is only mentioned as a theory in the Japanese version, the entire beginning of the English version discusses these tests and what may result. I will say that, even though I prefer the Japanese version with English subtitles, the dubbed American version is really good. The dubbing itself is not bad and it is obvious that time and care were taken to match up the voices as close as possible to the mouth movements. George Takei, from STAR TREK, and Paul Frees, who did the voice of Boris Badenoff in the Bullwinkle cartoons, were two of the people that helped with the dubbing. Unlike GODZILLA, new footage was not shot incorporating American actors, which I am really glad about.

Though both versions are very similar in tone, the atomic testing theme is much more prevalent in the American version, which is actually surprising as it was the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and fallout from other atomic testing, that resulted in the original Godzilla film. Some scenes were also moved around, or shortened, and narration by Shigeru was added throughout the film, none of which can be found in the Japanese version. This tightening actually benefited the movie as there were no lags in the story and no important plot points were removed.

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One of the biggest changes in the English version is that the second Rodan shows up much earlier in the film. In the scene where Shigeru and the others see Rodan up close for the first time at Mt. Aso, the second one emerges immediately thereafter, with Shigeru saying, “It has a mate!” It is this second Rodan that then causes the Jeep to crash against the rocks. There is also one scene in the Japanese version where the first Rodan is flying away from the jet fighters, towards the backdrop painted like a sky. Before it hits the backdrop the prop flaps its wings a bit to give it height and when it does this, the shadow of the model appears on the backdrop. This scene was cut in the American version just before the shadow appears. Some of Akira Ifukube’s original score was also replaced with stock music.

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The original DVD release of RODAN.

This DVD  is the second time it has been released in the United States on DVD and is the best version to date. With that being said though, the image has a lot of scratches and discoloration from age. I have not seen the Japanese blu-ray release yet and am really curious if that copy is better, or if the flaws are just more apparent. Hopefully someday a company like Criterion will release this amazing film in an ultimate edition, much like they did with the original GODZILLA.

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If you would like to read the other blogs in the KAIJU KONNECTION series, please click HERE.

~David Albaugh

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