Monday, June 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #7: Rodan

The late night movie is a wonderful thing. In the wee-est of hours, TV channels that can't attract enough infomercials will sometimes throw on any old programmer or bizarre flick that they didn't pay a lot for and don't care if anyone watches. As such they're usually more enjoyable than the respectable mainstream fare that airs when people are awake. Case in point: RODAN, seen at 3:00 AM on AMC on a Friday night. No, I don't have that much of a life, why do you ask?

First released in 1956, RODAN was one of the first of Toho's attempts to capitalize on the huge success of the original GODZILLA (though the very first was 1955's GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, also called GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER.) I'm reviewing the American release here, though I'm not sure of the differences. It's ten minutes shorter, there's stock footage of an atomic test tacked on to the beginning, and there may not have been narration in the original version, but I wasn't able to find an authoritative list of changes.

The first part of RODAN takes place in the mining town of Kitamatsu, where a number of mysterious murders take place in the caves. At first a missing miner named Goro is suspected, but a friend named Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) tries to clear his name. It turns out that the killings are the work of giant insects living in the deep mine tunnels. Shigeru joins a group of policemen in an expedition into the mines to kill one of the grubs, but a cave-in sends him down to the unexplored caves below. He is recovered, suffering from memory loss after having seen something terrifying in the depths. Soon after, an unidentified flying object is taking out airplanes and snatching up unsuspecting humans. Shigeru eventually regains his memory and reveals that in the cave, he saw a giant pterodactyl hatching from an egg (and devouring the insects.) The giant flying reptile flies at supersonic speeds, can create destructive gusts of wind, is mostly invulnerable (like almost all of Toho's creations) and, as it turns out, has a mate.

While Godzilla, in his original appearance, was a kind of walking atom bomb, unsubtly recalling the horror of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rodan is another kind of force of nature, having nothing really to do with atomic power (despite the prologue)- instead, he and the insect creatures are awakened by man's delving too deeply, almost a product of our greed (the narration says as much.) He's also more of an animal, preying on humans for food instead of just for the fun of it, and the film has a nice primal feel, giving us a contest for supremacy in nature without a lot of scientific talk getting in the way. The structure of the film- with the title monster appearing rather late in the proceedings by monster movie standards- is unusual but effective, and the ending is strangely poignant.

The visual effects are up to Toho's old standards. We laugh at guys in monster suits smashing miniature sets, but at the time, this sort of work was really only outclassed by the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen and mentor Willis O'Brien. Remember, this very year, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS managed to wow audiences by running film backwards. The dubbing works in its cartoonish way (listen for George Takei in what, according to AMC, was his first movie work), which seems like faint praise, but there's never been a truly good dub of a live-action Japanese film, so I'll take this.

They don't show Japanese monster movies on TV nearly often enough. You can find a western or a Bond movie on basic cable approximately 90% of the time on any given day, why shortchange the kaiju fans? Once in a while, though, you're flipping channels, a giant pterodactyl starts destroying buildings and you have a reason not to sleep. And so the invention known as television displays its real power.

Story by Ken Kuronuma
Written by Takeo Murata and Takeshi Kimura, David Duncan (U.S. version)
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

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