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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2021 -Day 13: RODAN (1956)

First rush hour, now this. 

A Japanese mining village is plunged into turmoil as the local mining company's excavations unleash a swarm of man-sized murderous bugs, an harbinger of a far worse menace on the horizon. The mining dig bores its way into an underground cavern where the bugs live, but they are revealed to be the food source for a just-hatched gargantuan prehistoric bird, and once it escapes and takes to the skies, the entire earth is its hunting ground. Picking off human prey like popcorn shrimp and capable of flying at trans-sonic velocities, the creature is a master of the air whose slipstream generates hurricane-force winds that can level cities. But as the military tracks the bird, it seems to span great distances in impossibly short amounts of time, meaning there's no way that only one such bird could move that rapidly...

When Toho released GOJIRA in 1954, it unwittingly spawned the uniquely Japanese flavor of giant monster movies that featured creatures realized through costumes ("suitmation") and props instead of time-consuming stop-motion animation, coupled with hyper-detailed miniature sets and landscapes to be destroyed by a given movie's rampaging beast. With GOJIRA proving a critical and box office success worldwide, Toho wasted no time in making more kaiju flicks, and 1956's RODAN was the first to be released in color. Briskly paced and granted lavish production values and gorgeous color, the story gives us a threat straight out of Lovecraft, a primordial creature to whom mankind is a species to be met with utter indifference, and one seemingly impervious to the technological weapons of the military. The human element of the story is also quite involving, focusing as it does on  a small community colliding head-on with an unimaginable terror, while also making us care about the love story of a young miner, who witnesses the birth of Rodan and subsequently temporarily loses his mind as a result, and his fiancee. Unlike too many human characters in this genre, especially the Japanese flavor of such, we actually come to care about the protagonists, though it's clear very early on that they are utterly impotent when facing monsters of such colossal scale and destructive capabilities.

RODAN earns its place on the short list of Toho's finest efforts, as well as being one of the very best giant monster movies made by any studio anywhere, so it was only a matter of time before the character was brought back. Unfortunately, Rodan's subsequent appearances in the original wave of Godzilla epics rendered the monster into nothing more than air support with a face that was downright goofy-looking. The 1990's reinvented the creature as "Fire Rodan" and gave it a makeover, but this time it looked more like something one would find on the shelf of a toy store than a monster with any gravitas. The only time Rodan was used to spectacular effect after its initial outing was in the American-made GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), an overrated "product" movie whose sole saving grace was a stunning aerial battle between Rodan and a squadron of fighter planes. (They didn't stand a chance.)

RODAN was one of the first Japanese monster flicks that I clearly recall seeing — I was around four or five years old at the time — and every aspect of it stuck with me. Rodan is a monster very dear to my heart, though I would not have been mad if Tho had simply let its initial outing stand as its sole appearance. That first film is perfection, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Poster for the Japanese theatrical release.
Poster for the British release.

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