It's a load of rubbish. It's a 1950s monster movie. Yes, I know it's well-known and respected among geeks of Japanese cinema, kaiju and/or this kind of thing, but really.
It's Toho's follow-up to 'Godzilla'
, if you ignore Godzilla Raids Again
. That was merely a cash-in sequel made on the cheap by a "churn 'em out" director. This is Toho's first colour kaiju movie, for which they brought back Ishiro Honda as director and gave him the studio's full resources to play with. There's also slightly more to the script than just the desire to do a thinly disguised remake, since this new monster is a metaphor for a completely different kind of force for destruction. Godzilla was a nuke on legs, but Rodan is the fury of the natural world. He brings earthquakes, volcanoes and in particular typhoons. Japan has all of those, being one of the world's most geologically active countries.
Unfortunately typhoons are a much less fruitful metaphor than nukes, while in addition the film's story gets off the ground. There's some nice character material, but it's confined to a sub-plot that has nothing to do with anything else and soon disappears. Meanwhile the monster movie stuff is surprisingly well thought through, but pointless. Dinosaurs cause havoc and Japan's defence forces try to stop them. Eventually they do. The End.
In fairness though, the film has a few surprises. We begin in a mining community. A body's been found with unusual head wounds and another man is missing, which makes people wonder if the latter killed the former. This is hard to bear for the latter's sister (Yumi Shirakawa) and the man who wants to marry her (Kenji Sahara). However it soon turns out that the culprit for this and more deaths isn't some rogue miner, but instead... no, not Rodan. Whatever you might have been expecting, it's unlikely to have been giant prehistoric earwigs that make noises like a balloon being rubbed. These are called Meganulons and they'd return 34 years later in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.
This was a surprise for me since I'd been expecting to see Rodan in a movie called Rodan. It got me wondering about the life cycle of these things, e.g. maybe Meganulons are just Rodans in a larval form, or else maybe they're the Rodans' food and there's an entire prehistoric ecoystem down there. The humans investigate and find lots of Meganulons underground... and an egg. That's one big egg. You could build a house on it. Godzilla might have hatched from that egg, and not just as a baby (a.k.a. Godzooky). A full-grown Rodan's about to climb out of that thing, suggesting either that (a) Rodans can lay eggs bigger than their own bodies, or else that (b) despite appearances, that's still an infant we see and the proud parents are orders of magnitude bigger still. Yeesh. Personally I'm going for option (b) and the theory that the Rodan who hatches out then disappears to return in later movies, in which case any other Rodans we see here are merely Mum and Dad.
The rest of the film, as far as the humans are concerned, is predictable. Shirakawa and Sahara get some nice material to play and Shirakawa's brother (Rinsaku Ogata) eventually returns, while there's a scene where Rodan kills two honeymooners. Apart from that though, nothing. The only other human-sized thing of interest is the traditional mad paleontology. Things I learned from watching this film:
(a) Dinosaurs lived 2 million years ago. Well, I suppose that's what they said in 'Godzilla'
(b) The "p" in "pteranodon" isn't silent, although that's just the Japanese language having a transliteration brainfart rather than a specific issue with this film.
(c) there's a pteranodon species called Rodan that weighs more than 100 tons and has a 270 metre wingspan. I'm guessing it also had jet engines or anti-gravity, to get off the ground. Real pteranodons of course had up to a six-metre wingspan.
(d) Rodan is really called "Radon", which is short for "pteranodon". This was really weird. I'd always thought that Rodan was called Rodan, but around then it seems America had a soap called "radon", so they changed the monster's name and it's stuck that way ever since. Nevertheless the katakana title reads RADON. Everyone goes around saying Radon. He's called Radon. It's loopy that a 1950s soap can be messing with my brain more than half a century later, but there you have it.
Rodan (sigh) is the best thing about this film. The typhoon metaphor doesn't really add up to much, but it looks cool to have Rodan blasting cars off the road and slates off roofs, just by flying overhead. The film invites you to dream up theories about their life cycle, psychology and even reproductive habits, since we see quite a lot about them and yet the humans' theories are garbage. (There's a nod in the direction of radiation and atomic bombs having possibly brought Rodan to life, but even the scientist coming up with that one admits that he has other possible theories as well.) We might have Rodan generations. Most intriguing though is the twist where they wheel on a second Rodan and end up shedding a startling light on the relationship of what's presumably a breeding pair. This would have been one of the best monster movie endings I'd ever seen, had only the rest of the movie been good enough to make me care. Sadly I didn't, but it's impressive anyway. The idea at least is admirable.
You could perhaps try to draw thematic parallels between the two or three Rodans and the human triangle of Shirakawa, Sahara and Ogata. Maybe the parents were just protecting their child? Who knows? If they were, they succeeded. I'm also informed that after this no Rodan ever dies in a Godzilla movie, so it might be the same Rodan Jr. throughout.
The colour was intended to be a selling point, but it's a terrible idea. Black-and-white is not only more exciting and atmospheric, but it's more forgiving to special effects. Personally I got a kick from the models and the Men In Suits, which have a cheesy charm you don't get from CGI, but it can't be denied that the toy tanks, for instance, wouldn't fool a six-year-old. This makes the film more amusing, but that wasn't the intention.
George Takei helped dub this one too, incidentally, and apparently you'll hear him doing a ton of different voices if you're foolish enough to be watching the American version. They only had three actors and one actress to do everyone. Apparently they throw in silly voices. Anyway, as for the rest of the film, the differences aren't as extensive as those in 'Godzilla'
and Godzilla Raids Again
, but they include inserting stock music in place of some of Akira Ifukube's compositions, adding a prologue with stock footage of nuclear tests and cutting for length and to remove material that would make the film feel too serious. The resulting film was its (small) distributor's biggest success and their later releases would say, "From the company that brought you 'Rodan'."
In summary, it's three films in one. 1. There's the story of the Rodans themselves, who'd have been one of the all-time greats if only their creature designs hadn't lacked personality. Toho was still just doing big dinosaurs at this point, instead of going hog-wild with the likes of King Ghidorah. 2. There's the story of Shirakawa, Sahara and Ogata, which is good. 3. There's unfortunately the rest of the film, which is almost empty of story or interest and will leave you looking for something more involving to do while the movie plays in the background. It's not a despicable load of 1950s, but it's still thin. If you've got a TV in the dining room and you're looking for some interesting wallpaper during dinner, you've found your baby. There's some nifty stuff in here, but close attention is not required.