Rodan (Ishirõ Honda, 1956)
After bringing us the big marauding honcho in the rubber suit that started it all, inarguably (as far as I’m concerned anyway) the greatest amongst all the kaiju, Godzilla (yeah, yeah, I know it’s actually Gojira, but he’ll always be Godzilla to me… my childhood memories demand it!), starting it all up in genuine art-house style with what has to be the most profoundly moving of all these films, providing an elegy on the devastation of (nuclear) war wrapped in the guise of a monster movie, director Honda alas bailed on the sequel Godzilla Raids Again… and the film clearly suffers his absence (while it did bring in a second monster Anguirus for Godzilla to battle, starting up the soon to be popular notion of the kaiju monster mash-up); fortunately, however, Toho Studios soon rectified the situation, and Honda was back, triumphantly returning to gift us his masterful direction for the grand entrance of the next kaiju destined for iconic status – namely, the impressively flying prehistoric monster Rodan.
Also with the return of Honda comes the effective quasi-documentary, serious approach in the first half of the film which he used to great effect in Godzilla, focusing on the rippling reactions on the blue collar mining town, then the larger scientific community, then on the cities soon to be attacked (in glorious color this time! – and speaking of that, man, does the film look great), with Honda’s effective sense of capturing crowds and forward movement back in action. There’s also a welcome return to Honda’s thoughtful cautionary themes on Reckless Man being the catalyst for his own destruction – with his greedy plundering into the Earth raising the initial monsters, giant insects that keep picking off the miners one at a time before attacking the village itself, then the familiar nuclear testing releasing the giant bird Rodan (who they first only get signs of with the dawning horror that these giant bugs they’ve unleashed from deep in the Earth, they’re mere morning morsels for the much larger flying monster!)… and Honda and the film even throw in an early reference to global warming (talk about early… this was 1956! I mean, Al Gore couldn’t get anyone to listen in the 90’s, and that was 40 years later!).
Honda also wisely backs off from the romantic subplots, applying the less is more motto (and, as with his original Godzilla, it works just fine this way, near seamlessly). Akihiko Hirata shows up in a fairly substantial role, taking on the role this go-round of the Paleontologist (a character type essayed by the Kurosawa-great Takashi Shimura in the earlier two Godzilla films), introduced in the narrative to help explain to all us dumb-dumbs (i.e., us, the audience) where this particular kaiju has come from and just how to go about stopping it; with his likeable performance, Hirata reveals himself as more than a one-trick pony actor, having created that most unforgettably tragic, far-more conflicted, eye-patch wearing figure of Dr Serizawa in Godzilla.
The second half then achieves that pure, near-adolescent pleasure that derives from watching the impressively flying Rodan on a miniature-set rampage, toppling a long span-bridge, diving into a huge stream, getting into arial combat with a few fighter jets (with the planes never looking particularly convincing in these kaiju movies, but yet fitting just fine into the pleasingly milieu created), with perfect punctuations from a grand orchestral score.
(WARNING! WARNING! SPOILER ALERT COMING IN THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH!)
Also welcomed back is a return to the more sorrowful approach to the defeat of the Kaiju, with the final scene taking place around an impressively-rendered erupting volcano (with Honda and crew clearly maxing out the potential the color film brought). As poetically resonant moans of sorrow emit from the majestically burning birds (there are two Rodans, we discover, a mating couple no less) with each seemingly trying to protect the other from certain death, what lingers is far from a sense of triumph.
(SPOILER ALERT CONCLUDED! WE WILL NOW RETURN TO YOUR REGULAR PROGRAMMING!)
While not the transcendent art-house masterpiece of Godzilla, Rodan nonetheless provided the director a triumphant return… as well as allowed him to introduce another long-lasting kaiju into the cinematic fold!