American studios such as Universal and RKO discovered in the twenties and thirties that monster movies sold tickets, and it didn’t take long for the trend to travel overseas. While Britain’s Hammer Horror was busy rehashing their own versions of gothic Universal monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula, Japan’s Toho Company found influence in the science fiction monsters of RKO, striking gold with Godzilla in 1954. Not wanting to rest on their laurels, Toho kept pumping out mutant reptile movies, and they found success again in 1956 with Rodan.
Rodan begins in a mining village in the Japanese mountains. Shortly after the start of a morning shift, the unstable mine floods and two men are trapped inside. The safety officer of the mine, a young man named Shigeru (Kenji Sahara, who would make appearances in many more monster films, including King Kong vs. Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters), ventures below with a team to search for the men. The investigation turns up one of the men’s body, but it wasn’t the water that killed him; an autopsy shows that he was killed by repeated lacerations from a sharp object. Believing that the other missing man is the murderer, the police stand guard at the only entrance to the mine. While there, they are attacked by a group of giant mutant insects. When a large team of reinforcement troops follow the bugs into the mine, they are met with a bigger surprise – the insects are simply food for a prehistoric flying dinosaur that has been awakened below the surface of the earth. The beast, which the authorities nickname Rodan, takes to the skies above the country and attacks anything that it can catch. The scientists’ fears are multiplied when they discover that there is not just one Rodan – there are two, and they both angry to be awakened. The military is called in, but it may be too late to stop the winged creatures from having their way with the citizens of Japan.
Directed by the father of the Japanese monster movie, Ishirô Honda (who also created Godzilla, Mothra, and countless others), Rodan is arguably second only to Godzilla himself in popularity. Like Godzilla, Rodan was born out of the post World War II fears of atomic power that were justifiably running rampant in Japan. Written by Takeshi Kimura (Destroy All Monsters) and Takeo Murata (Godzilla), Rodan is a definite feather in the cap of the Toho Monster Movie Machine and an influential film in science fiction cinema history.
Typical of Toho’s monster movies, the visual effects in Rodan are endearingly amateur. Rather than rely on time consuming and painstaking stop-motion animation to create the monsters, Ishirô Honda opted to use an actor in a monster suit on a practical soundstage. The actor that was used, Haruo Nakajima, was no stranger to monster movies; he made a career out of playing Godzilla onscreen, portraying the beast in more than a dozen pictures, including the original 1954 film. Nakajima was zipped into the Rodan suit, hoisted above a scale model town on cables and flown around, flapping and kicking. The footage was edited together with a few miniature monster shots, and Rodan was brought to life. The low tech effects are a big part of the charm of Toho’s monster movies, and Rodan is a perfect example.
Rodan was Americanized a bit for western release. The script’s dialogue and narration was reworked by science fiction writer David Duncan (The Time Machine, Fantastic Voyage) to make it more accessible to American audiences, including the addition of a huge amount of voiceover from Shigeru to help with the story’s exposition. An entire prologue featuring nuclear testing footage was added to emphasize the atomic power aspect of the story. The name of the monster, a contraction for pteranodon, is Radon in the Japanese film, switched to Rodan to avoid confusion in American audiences with the radioactive element radon. Many scenes with the giant insects were truncated to downplay them, making Rodan the primary monster. Finally, the second Rodan is featured much more prominently in the American version of the film, with his existence being more of a surprise reveal in the Japanese cut.
Toho’s monster movies were a bit like the Avengers franchise of their time. The individual monsters, introduced initially as villains and transformed into heroes as they gained popularity, frequently crossed over into each other’s movies as their mythologies played out. Although the monsters were first brought together to fight against each other, they were later called upon to team up against bigger threats to the citizens of Japan. Like Godzilla before him, Rodan fit this mold; initially an antagonist, he would show up to save the day in later films, even teaming up with Godzilla and Mothra to defeat King Ghidorah in Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster. The Toho monsters were Japan’s superheroes, and they were presented with all the strengths and weaknesses as American comic book heroes. Rodan was the Captain America to Godzilla’s Iron Man – they clashed at times, but always had each other’s backs when the chips were down.
In contrast to the Universal and Hammer monsters, the Japanese Toho Company monsters were more campy than frightening. Nevertheless, the destructive giants in these movies symbolized real fears of the Japanese people, and continue to hold an important place in science fiction and horror film history. It’s fun to watch the films and cheer for the monsters, and Rodan is one of the best examples in the group.