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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


To continue this Digression Week, we have another famous Japanese monster movie. Following on the success of Gojira (Godzilla), Ishiro Honda and Toho Studios created similar giant monster (kaiju) movie. Rodan was the first Toho monster movie in color. The original Radon was released in Japan in 1956. Given Godzilla's success in America in 1955, American distributors (the King Brothers) were quick to buy the rights for an American release. Rodan was surprisingly well dubbed and faithful to the original story. It did very well for the King Brothers. Rodan is like two monster movies in one. The first half has giant bugs attacking coal miners. The second half has a giant pteranodon attacking the world (mostly Japan).

Quick Plot Synopsis
(this is for the original Japanese cut) -- Two coal miners have a history of quarreling and fighting. One of them is found dead in the mines, as are three more sent in to investigate. The other is suspected. Shigeru, the mine engineer, consoles Kiyo, his fiancee. A giant larval bug enters her house. Men chase it up on a hillside, the bug attacks two policeman. The army is called in to kill the bug. Down in the mine shaft, the attack it with heavy machine guns, but to no effect. Shigeru gets separated into another cavern. He is attacked by larvae, but assumed lost in a cave-in. Biologists figure the big bugs are the larval stage of prehistoric dragonflies. An earth tremor causes a huge are of earth to collapse. Shigeru is found wandering in the new pit, but he has lost his memory.
Reports come in of a supersonic UFO. Jets are scrambled, but one is rammed by the UFO. Planes are missing. A pair of honeymooners are missing, as are several cattle. Scientists deduce that the UFO is a giant pteranodon. Shigeru regains his memory and confirms this. He recalls seeing it hatch in the cave and eat the larvae. The Rodan causes destruction in many cities, especially Fukuoka. Turns out there are two Rodans. They nest in caves on Mt. Aso (an active volcano). The military evacuate civilians, then attack the volcano with tanks and rockets to seal the caves. This also causes the volcano to erupt. The two Rodans escape the rubble, but one is too hurt to escape and falls into the lava. Its mate hovers for awhile, calling, but then settles into the flames beside it. They die together. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is much to enjoy in Rodan. It's Godzilla 2.0. It is a rich and layered tale beneath the veneer of a rubber-suit monster stomping model cities. See Notes for more points of interest.

Cold War Angle
Like Godzilla, Rodan's appearance is blamed on imprudent nuclear testing. This impossible to miss in the American cut. Rodan is similarly an analogy for the destructive power of modern war. There is complexity amid the usual nuclear cautionary tale.

What's in a Name? -- In the Japanese original, the monster is called Radon.
This is a contraction from pteRAnoDON. The Japanese posters have the three big katakana characters for RA-DO-N. Yet, for the American release, the vowels were swapped to yield rOdAn. Why? Various theories exist. There was a toy that had trademarked the name? There is an atomic element by that name? Neither of these are convincing. Whatever the reason, Rodan is how Americans knew the flying monster.

Nice Dub, Man -- The english dialogue lines up pretty well with Japanese actors' lip movements. The english script follows the original plot line. In some ways, the english dub makes for a clearer story. Some narration (ostensibly by Shigeru) over some longish or vague scenes, fills in some details and backstory that Honda left subtle. Listen for the unmistakable voice of Paul Frees as the police chief, mining boss and others. George Takai (later Lt. Sulu) also provides voice talent.

You Talk Funny -- It is interesting that the voice talent were instructed to talk with japanese accents. The most egregious of these is Paul Frees, but others are oddly affected too. One character says in his exaggerated accent, that he is completely baffled -- "I ahm compweet-awee baff-ood". The director must have felt the english dubs needed to "sound" japanese.

Super Models -- The model work in Rodan is actually very well done. Note, especially, the attention to detail in the buildings being destroyed by Rodan's wind. Notice all the delicate roof trusses when Rodan stomps on the train station. Note all the moving parts on the trucks and tanks. Anyone who has build models can see the Rodan sets were no slap-dash cheepo toys. These were A-grade model-miniature special effects.

Reconcilable Differences -- The King Brothers edits are surprisingly faithful to the original. New footage, such as the beginning with the nuclear bomb test, fit the original story. Longish scenes were pared down. Implied details were made blatant (such as there being two Rodans). Watch for repeated original footage, reversed left/right to serve as additional shots. Watch the footage of F-86 Saber Jets. In the original, they all had Japanese markings. In the American version, some footage clearly shows American markings. Overall, though, the King Brothers' version is no hack job. It is more of a re-edit with a different (but still competent) editor.

Moral of the Story? -- Ishiro Honda said Godzilla was an analogy for nuclear power (and nuclear war). Rodan fits this pattern as well, but not quite as neatly. The ending is enigmatic. The male Radon choosing to die with its mate in the volcano has a tragic nobility to it. This doesn't square with Honda's customary anti-nuke sentiments. Here is my take: Rodan is a retrospective analogy for WWII, seen in a sort of passive civilian view. War comes. It causes death and destruction. Civilian lives are disrupted (and lost). The Rodans are the old imperial Japan. The "new" Japan doesn't defeat the old so much as they're consumed by the fire. The final scene is like a respectful bit of mourning for the death of the "old" Japan.

Bottom line? Don't let the cheap kaiju movies of the 60s put you off. Rodan is a quality story about a giant terror of the skies, far better than a poor American copy the next year, The Claw. Watch Rodan for some quality kaiju. If you are really a kaiju fan, watch the japanese original (with English subtitles) first, then watch the King Brothers' re-edit. It makes great "compare and contrast" fodder.


Mike Scott said...

Quote: Various theories exist. There was a toy that had trademarked the name? There is an atomic element by that name?

I always figured it was because RODAN was easier to pronounce than was RADON.

Nightowl said...

I find R-o-dan easier to say too, but I think it's mostly from habit. Radon being a radioactive element would have been sort of 'natural' fit for a nuclear-cautionary-tale monster. Maybe the producers thought that was TOO obvious.

Mike Scott said...

Maybe it was just a typo? LOL