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Rodan (1956)

by on 2010/10/06

In my formative geekling years, before the world had a word for the concept (and didn’t involve chicken-killing carnies), I had no way of knowing I’d visit Japan at least twice in the decade to come, eventually spending several months of my life there.  I was too busy — watching You Only Live Twice, reading Frank Miller’s Wolverine, and sneaking out to friends’ homes for Battle of the Planets — even to think about the Land of the Rising Sun.  In the wake of my return I acquired a taste for J-pop music (particularly Shibuya-kei), played a whole lot of Shogo, and dabbled in anime.  However I have yet to understand fully the appeal of those “classic” Toho monster movies.

Sure I’ve seen my share of them.  I had memorable sleepovers with friends, battling fatigue through the wee hours, rewarded with tales of Bigfoot, Frankenstein, and of course Godzilla.  But for me Godzilla was less a character than a story.  I didn’t quite understand the point in seeing more.  He could fight Mechagodzilla or Mothra or even King Kong but it all seemed like bad wrestling, kind of samey (no minor feat with this fan of formula).  Now as I get older I find the Geek Nation closing protective ranks around Toho, not only defending their films’ inveterate merits but also celebrating their insight into a world gone Atomic.  I figure I owe it to my geek identification to try and understand, an effort which has motivated the purchase of their videos:  Godzilla (Gojira), Invasion of Astro-Monster, War of the Gargantuas, a Mothra, and the one I’m dissecting today:  Rodan.  Given my reactions, though, don’t expect another such review for a good long while.

Here’s the story.  In the country of Japan, on the island of Kyushu, in the prefecture of Kumamoto, and in the village of Kitamatsu (puff puff), local coal miners have dug too deep, unleashing cave-ins, floods, and prehistoric beasts.  Like Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan, the mining company sends wave after wave of their own men down the shafts to investigate.  When everyone comes back all dead-like, further waves of military police try again (spoiler alert) to no avail.  When the dust settles, only one man has survived, a mining engineer named Shigeru (Kenji Sahara).  Unfortunately he’s been rendered amnesiac by his experience.  Will he remember a useful bit of information in time to stop the killer creatures?  Or will they emerge and terrorize the great city of Fukuoka?  Cue the dramatic sting.

Normally I’m a big fan of old monster movies.  I certainly don’t expect to be convinced of anything by a B-level picture, but this one didn’t feel like it was even willing to meet me halfway.  You’d think the filmmakers would at least do their title monster justice.  The Rodan, a birdlike puppet without much flexibility, reminded me of nothing so much as a poor cousin of the creature in The Giant Claw.  The Meganulon creatures looked exactly like what they probably were:  unseeing, clumsy extras in cheap dragon kit.  The relative scales of Rodan (gigantic flying reptile) to Meganulon (less-gigantic insects) to people (finger food) were all out of whack, perhaps explaining why they rarely appeared in shots together.  Or maybe they felt odd precisely because of this disjointedness.  For their part the human fodder appeared in crowds, droves, and legions.  Clearly a “cast of thousands” was intended to impart an epic feel.  Instead I felt like I was watching the results of a middle-school-wide mandate to interpret the game of Lemmings.

If the contents were poor the presentation did no better.  My print’s source might have been to blame but, regardless, the stock grain, chroma key halos, and colour shifts were impossible to ignore.  Rarely do I see a B-movie with such unusually poor visual quality that it moves beyond charming to distracting.  Rodan actually looked worse than Grindhouse, which was terrible on purpose!  These visuals were matched by an equally awful sound mix.  We’ve (unfortunately) become accustomed to forced 5.1 mixes, burying dialogue under score, but I can’t recall a precedent where the sound effects were the loudest part, and by this wide a margin.  Plenty of these effects made a bad situation worse.

Is there such a thing as “too plenty”?  This piece will make you believe it.  Forget about narrative economy.  Here you’ll find an overdose of almost everything:  panicked extras, ill-fated vehicles, condemned buildings, missile launchings, explosions, and ravaged scenery.  Not many creatures, oddly, but they make up for their absence with exceptional annoyance.  The closing sequences are incredibly, ridiculously drawn out; they feel long, interminable, like an irony-free They Live.  Furthermore the final assault feels cheap.  I don’t mean “inexpensive” (though it certainly looked it) but “unfair”.  I’ve read of Roger Ebert’s distaste for stories ending in (mindless) fight scenes, where ideals are abandoned, and all problems get resolved by the toughest ass-kicker.  Well not only does this effort end with a fight but (honestly-not-a-joke-this-time possible spoiler alert) it’s an utterly one-sided affair.  Imagine Fox Mulder finally unravelling the great mysteries of The X-Files . . . then stealing an aluminum bat to beat the CSM to death in his sleep.  Kind of wrong, right?

So I despised Rodan?  Not quite.  If anything, I felt very little at all, at least for most of the running time.  What partially redeemed it for me were some of the very aspects I’ve criticized.  It definitely got better toward the end, as the plot accelerated and the visual effects ramped up.  Yes they were excessive but occasionally interesting.  Those scenes felt like a combination of Harryhausen favourites, especially 20 Million Miles to Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea.  The model work, while unconvincing, still felt fun.  Finally the very last scene came fairly close to poetic, or as near as dammit here.  It wasn’t exactly Romeo and Juliet but it was surprising, yet appropriate, and a refreshing twist on the standard happy ending.

In the interest of full disclosure:  I screened the English-dubbed U.S. version of the movie.  It was a late night, I was very tired, and I went with the shortest pick in the video pile.  Would the original Japanese edit surpass it?  I don’t know and I don’t know that I care.  My strongest emotional response was the not-very-agonizing agony over awarding it one star or two.  Rodan enjoys a good reputation but I’m not too sure just why.  At best it remains a fail.  The original King Kong came over two decades before and offered its audiences a superior achievement in every possible way.

* *

Rated PG (presumably for off-putting puppetry)

72 minutes (English-dubbed U.S. version)

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