Director: Ishirô Honda
It’s night #2 of the series I’m doing with blog friend Mike’s Take on the Movies as we creep toward Halloween. Tonight’s theme is Kaiju movies, and I picked one I haven’t seen since I was a teenager: Rodan (1956) aka Sora no daikaijû Radon.
The picture begins with footage of military testing a gigantic new hydrogen bomb. Graphic demonstration and detailed explanation describe the weapon’s awesome power; the sea boils, the sky fills with fire and observers are troubled to think of the aftermath. One possible result is offered by the movie’s focus on a Japanese coal mining community, a place where an unusual horror begins on an ordinary day. Tension has grown over a shaft going deeper than usual; the dig creates pressure between the rock strata and fights among the workers. A collapse and flood leads to a dead body, and soon others die the same way, not from crushing or drowning but from fright and unexplained wounds.
First there’s just a vague stirring and chirping in the mine and something casting long shadows, but things escalate quickly, from the emergence of a giant killer caterpillar with fly-like compound eyes, to the birth of two pterodactyl-like monsters dormant since prehistoric times. No machine gun, no runaway cartfuls of coal, no tank or plane or regular bomb can stop this superfast flying, terrorizing, screeching winged creature, which goes on to wreck parts far and wide before the humans figure out how to fight back.
Rodan uses some effective effects based on the power of suggestion and anticipation. When the first victim’s body is brought out of the mine, you see just enough of his ashen face, frozen in horror, and the alarm on his co workers’ faces, to fear whatever did this to him. You don’t see the flying monster at all in its first air attack, when it makes supersonic circles around a fighter jet and brings it down (and according to the news, does the same to more planes afterwards), but the pilot’s frantic transmissions and bloodied helmet is all you need. Same with the shoe and camera remaining from the couple who get photobombed by the monster at a volcano. A blurry streak on a photo, gigantic house-sized eggs hatching with strange peeping heard through the cracks, scientists’ theories, reports of mass casualties and terrors, sightings marked on maps and drawings of ancient life forms, are all the devices used to tease and build to the big reveals like the air battle. The huge, nimble and deadly thing dodges and attacks planes before landing in the city for an extended sequence of destruction that includes bus flips, bridge demotion and wing-flapping hurricane winds. Juxtaposed with the low earthbound perspective, binocular POV, and the panicked fleeing crowds, those visuals are very impressive despite being obvious miniatures, costumes and puppets.
The fun of Kaiju is seeing things get knocked down by cool monsters who roar and gesticulate wildly, as well as seeing how the filmmakers will create a convincing new creature and make you believe it can destroy us all, but the deeper and more lasting appeal is how these movies deal in basic fears and concerns. They usually put us face to face with primitive or unknown life, thereby triggering our flabby caveman instincts. They speak to mankind’s guilt over pushing boundaries, digging too deep, and tinkering with atoms, and through those efforts possibly giving birth to horrible new creations or awakening things sleeping beneath our fancy cities. The scenes where the workers search for their colleagues in murky armpit deep water and endless caverns, plays on fears of unseen things below and beyond. And small creepy crawlies with their unpredictable movements scare us into acting in embarrassing ways, never mind when they stride around town taller than skyscrapers.
And that’s the key, their scale. No matter what their shape or skin, they’re things that dwarf us, stomp out all those achievements we’re so proud of, and make us look puny and insignificant. They’re one way to embody our existentialist fear that nothing matters or lasts and we’re only temporary guests here, oblivious to the deadliness of our surroundings. They show us the failures of intellect and progress, since our most advanced weapons can’t stop it, and yet in the fight against them we can get new confidence in our brainpower and the value of a united front, as experts from all countries race to research and understand and find some way to save the planet. In many cases, and here in Rodan, the conflict ends with a teachable moment. The monster is an almost sympathetic character with a right to exist, and is even compared to a holocaust victim, while people (like the amnesiac mine worker and his loving wife) are good and humane, and still the planet’s best custodians who act in self-defense and feel bad about having to kill.
Now make a screeching supersonic flight over to Mike’s Take on the Movies to find out what kind of giant menace he’s picked out.