Thursday, October 29, 2020

Cardboard Science: They See Me Rodan, They Hatin'

Our third and final entry in the Great Switcheroo with Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue!

Year: 1956
Director: Ishirô Honda
Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata
Run Time: 1 hour 14 minutes

Hunter has been spectacularly kind to me this year in general. We've covered all the bases that most interest me in the world of 50's science fiction. An obscure forgotten work, a title mentioned in "Science Fiction, Double Feature," and now a daikaiju eiga, which roughly translated means "Japanese monster knocks shit down." Specifically, today we're here to talk about Rodan, the fourth kaiju movie from Ishirô Honda, the director and co-writer of the original Godzilla, which has been one of my favorite films from the annals of Cardboard Science.

I'm just cool that way, loving Godzilla is just more proof that my opinion is always very unique and special and different from everyone else's.

Rodan opens in a small Japanese mining town, where miners are dying at a rapid rate in one of the pits, scuppering initial suspicions that Goro (Rinsaku Ogata), a miner with a temper problem, killed one of his rivals. As the staff begins to pare down, the protagonists emerge, or at least the human beings who we can most reasonably call protagonists in a genre that always becomes largely disinterested in humans by the third act: engineer Shigeru Kawamura (Kenji Sahara) and Goro's distraught sister Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa). They are in love, and isn't that nice for them. Moving on.

H-bomb testing and maybe global warming has caused tectonic plates to shift, creating the perfect environment for some long-buried eggs to hatch, unleashing giant dragonfly larvae upon the town that cause general mayhem until an enormous cave-in releases a much bigger problem: the enormous flying beast Rodan, who takes to the skies to cause havoc on the Eastern seaboard. The mining crew and the Japanese military scramble to find ways to contain the monstrous Pteranadon.

But not before it smashes up a Japanese cityscape or two.

So here's the thing. Not only is Godzilla a kick-ass monster movie, it's a profound and harrowing reflection on a nation bearing the literal and metaphorical fallout of the nuclear bomb. Rodan is... not that. And it's not trying to be! Almost certainly the three Godzilla movies Honda made before helming Rodan got that out of his system. He's just here to have fun, content with the barest scrapings of environmental subtext.

He largely succeeds too, though Rodan is fun in a much different way than Godzilla, and that way doesn't resonate with me quite the same. Rodan is a flying beast, so the warfare has largely moved from the ground to the air, with fighter pilots squaring off against the monster in dogfights that would be familiar to any fan of World War II cinema. Think Red Tails, but with a creature that can create sonic booms with its wings. Military cinema in general fails to please me, so foregounding that element over a dude in a suit stomping through a miniature Tokyo was naturally going to lose me a bit.

Objective reviewing doesn't actually exist, folks!

And while nobody comes to a Japanese kaiju movie to be bowled over by realism, some of the drawbacks to Rodan's special effects are too glaring to not come at a bit of a price. Having a completely airborne monster poses more of a challenge, and his rubbery wings (which barely flap, and somehow make a hilarious jet engine noise) don't seem to be lifting him so much as the string in his back. Convincing flying is always hard to pull off, and they certainly didn't have the resources to do so in 1956. But there's a reason the scenes with the giant larvae are more fun. They're tactile and the actors can actually interact with them, because their many moving parts (which create an unnerving, unceasing motion) are operated like a Chinese parade dragon rather than a dangling puppet.

All this is not to say I didn't enjoy the mayhem Rodan brings to the table. Especially in the scene where he smashes up a port city, this is where the detail in set dressing really comes out to play. Cars and trains are knocked into buildings, all the tiles are blown off a roof, and  a bunch of other physical, practical destruction redeem any faults the airplay might have. Honestly everything practical here is pretty satisfying, including the cave-in early on.

The human storylines falter a lot in the lead-up to the monster battle (Shigeru's amnesia is a wholly unneeded soap opera twist that comes from nowhere, and the romantic subplot fails to stick the landing), but I did enjoy the first act that is less special effects, more ominous dread. Whether its a cut to the bloody helmet of a pilot who perishes by an unseen force, or the grim vision of corpses floating in the flooded mine, Rodan certainly packs in the atmosphere when it can't afford to be showing nonstop monster shenanigans (although I dearly wish they hadn't included the element of Rodan's unseen attacks on Beijing and Manila, because if you're going to mention them, why not show them?).

And there's another tip of the hat toward a more serious tone with the grand finale, which is a strangely downbeat and lingering reflection on the tragedy of the great monster's destruction. But all in all Rodan just wants to goof around, and it does so with reasonable verve and vigor, even if Rodan the monster is hardly as compelling a central figure as some other kaiju I could name.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:

  • Ooooh, those remote control toy tanks fighting Rodan sure are precious!
  • Apparently Rodan can grow from a hatchling - albeit a large one - to a beast with a 270 foot wingspan in about half a day. That must be a HARSH puberty.

The morality of the past, in the future!:

  • I like the romance subplot only insofar as the people involved are very pretty, because otherwise this is the blandest, chastest nonsense any side of the pond.


  • I truly don't know why they included a second Rodan if all they're gonna do is shout, "it's a second Rodan!" and then also burn it up with lava, no sweat.

TL;DR: Rodan is a satisfying kaiju picture, though one that lacks the emotional punch or effects wizardry that the director is capable of.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1076

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2020: The Colossus of New York (1958) It Came from Outer Space (1953) Rodan (1956)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981)


  1. "They See Me Rodan, They Hatin'"


    For me, Rodan is right up there as one of my absolute favorite kaiju films, and I may like it more than Godzilla '54. (My no. 1 is still probably Invasion of Astro-Monster for the wacky space hijinks and fun characters, but it might be just it was my favorite as a kid--of course, if there's any genre where "favorite as a kid" is the best possible reason for loving it as a grown-up, surely it's kaiju films!)

    It doesn't do the atomic allegory, true. There's something, probably, to the "untouchable airborne enemy wrecks Japanese cities" stuff, but even by this early date the war metaphor had been virtually abandoned for matinee fun--and that was, to my mind, a good and necessary thing, particularly since it does not require me to grapple with the sour implications of an allegory that somewhat erases Japanese war guilt.

    Rodan, anyway, gets its power from how out and out Lovecraftian it is, so concerned is it with deep time and the tininess of humanity within the vastness of an uncaring cosmos, and tying it literally to an atmospheric subterranean realm where paleontology tells us the past lies makes for maybe the most brilliant and genuinely *scary* horror-inflected stuff Honda ever did. And the reversal at the end, that flips your (well,my) sympathies to the mates who once held dominion, and have done nothing but try to survive, perishing together... well, it finds a note of personalized tragedy to the end of a great species that I really respond to, partly because I'm human and can empathize with the great beasts, and partly because it says that all things, even the mightiest, still die.

    That said, it's got boring parts and some really cardboard characters, but I love it.

    1. That ending has really grown on me the more space I’ve gotten away from the movie. And if nothing else, it convinced me to pull the trigger on buying Criterion’s Showa era box set, into which the guy I’m dating and I are four films deep.

    2. Bear in mind the Showa set DOES NOT include Rodan. Which is insane. My guess is that Criterion will eventually release a double-feature blu-ray of Rodan and War of the Gargantuas, the remaining two Toho kaiju flicks they have the rights to, but they haven't done it yet, and I think they'd have been better off juicing sales for the Showa set by just including the darn things in it.

      Then again, it did not stop me from buying it even though the only one I didn't already own in some fashion (mostly DVD, admittedly) was Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

      Also beware that it has truly stupid packaging. It's too tall for most shelves. I have it sitting face-up on top of some of my larger, wider books, which, you know, wonderful.

    3. Yeah it’s currently propped up against my record player. The shelving nerd side of me hates the packaging but also my heart appreciates that it’s Godzilla so it’s appropriate to be inconveniently large.

    4. Ha, that's pretty good.

      I misread it and thought you were *gonna* buy it. Personally speaking, the most fun stuff is yet to come. (I do not understand Mothra vs. Godzilla's reputation among kaiju nerds. It's charming and okay, I guess?) But Invasion of Astro-Monster, Hedorah, vs. Mechagodzilla, fantastic stuff.

      Destroy All Monsters is unaccountably and surprisingly not that interesting.

      But even when they're not great, they're a uniquely watchable corpus of nonsense. Dunno if your guy likes the Heisei series too, but if it comes to it, you may be disappointed, as the fun Silver Age comic book plotting in the human plots is replaced by very samey military-industrial complex G-Unit material, and they're not as watchable.

    5. Mothra vs Godzilla was definitely solid, but frankly I preferred Godzilla Raids again. And before this marathon he’d never seen any of them and I’d only seen Godzilla. We’ll see once we’re done with this set if we want to continue further down this dark and dangerous oth.

  2. Oh Godzilla. I believe Hunter and I already completely geeked out over the Showa set on Tim's Lion King review, but I'll totally do it again over here as well.

    I need to clear space on my shelf next to Godzilla for the Gamera Arrow set I still haven't shelved.