Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rodan (1956)

When discussing sequels, spinoffs, and continuity within the Godzilla franchise - and especially when dealing with the various series that take place within that franchise - things can get a little sticky.  Especially with spinoffs.  There are many films which very obviously tie-in to the main Godzilla narrative, and some... not so much.  It's actually a subject that has many fans greatly divided.  Still, it's apparent in various cameos and later films - as well as in the general marketing of Toho's monster franchise - that Toho considers most of their sci fi/fantasy movies something of a piece with one another.  As such, most of those films (I might miss a few along the way) will be reviewed.  That said, 1956's Rodan isn't one of the films only loosely tied to the Godzilla franchise, as it clearly comes into play in later films.

1956 saw the return of Ishiro Honda following up Half Human by returning to enre tropes established by his previous Godzilla and its sequel (which he did not direct) Godzilla Raids Again, with the release of Rodan - and in full color, no less.  Since the first Godzilla attack in 1954, it appears that Japan has been cursed to feel the wrath of nature time and time again.  In the small mining village of Kitamatsu, two miners have gone missing. The two men, Goro and Yoshi, had brawled earlier that day, and no sooner had they entered the mine when the shaft quickly flooded. Shigeru Kawamura, head of security at the mine, heads below to investigate the mysteriously flooded tunnels, where he and the local police quickly make a gruesome discovery: Yoshi's severely lacerated corpse. Above ground, a doctor examines Yoshi, and discovers the cause of death to be a series of deep gashes caused by an abnormally sharp object.  As some of the miners comfort Yoshi's wailing wife, the others discuss the possibility of Goro's involvement in the death. The two had never been friends, and had, after all, gotten in a fight earlier that very morning.  With Goro still missing, murder seems likely, and many suspect that he could be on the run or still be hiding in the mine.  Outside, Shigeru meets with his fiance Kiyo, who is also Goro's sister. He tells her that he is sure of Goro's innocence, which comforts hear greatly.

Meanwhile, inside the mine, three policemen stand guard at the edge of the water, knowing if Goro tries to escape, he will surely come that way, as it is the only exit.  Suddenly, they hear a splash in the flooded mine, and venture into the water. As they wade deeper into the shaft, they get more and more nervous, until one of the policemen begins to scream and then disappears under the water.  Panic ensues, and it is not too long before another is pulled under by something beneath the surface.  The last policeman flees, but before he can escape, he is cornered and attacked by someone - or something.  Soon after, his body, along with the bodies of the other two policemen, are brought up and examined. The doctor announces that they, too, were killed by a sharp object that simply sliced them apart, and the village outcry that Goro be brought to justice reaches its peak.  So much so, in fact, that the wife of one of the murdered men runs to Kiyo's house and screams threats at her through the door, as she believes that her brother, Goro, is the killer. Shigeru soon arrives and comforts her, telling her that the officers who were killed were Goro's friends, implying that someone else must have killed those men. As the two sit together, the answer to the question of who - or what - murdered the men suddenly reveals itself: a gigantic creature, resembling an insect larva enters Kiyo's home, and both Kiyo and Shigeru flee. The police enter the home, but the giant insect fights them off. When they regroup, they chase the creature to the top of a hill, where it launches itself down the hillside and grabs two officers, clutching them in its pincers as it flees. It soon drops them and quickly escapes back into the mine. When the police and Shigeru reach the injured officers, they discover that their wounds match the wounds of the murdered policemen and Yoshi. They have found the killer.

Soon after, Shigeru and a group of the metro-police and army head back into the mine to confront the insect monster and attempt to locate Goro, dead or alive. Unfortunately, as they enter the deepest part of the mine shaft, they discover the butchered body of Goro laying on the ground, and as they approach, the giant insect emerges and chases the men back up the mine shaft. Taking action, Shigeru releases the mine cart, which rolls down the shaft and collides with the insect, crushing and killing it. Shigeru and the others then venture back into the shaft and remove Goro's body. They discover a large hole in the wall that opens up into a large cave, and realize that this is the hole through which the water and the giant insect originally emerged. As they peek through, they are noticed by not just one, but dozens of other giant insect creatures like the one they had just destroyed. Before the monsters can attack, however, the ground begins to shake, and the mine begins to cave in. Shigeru is trapped in the cave with the creatures, and the police can do nothing as the mine collapses around them.

The next day, the police investigate the recent happenings. Dr. Kashiwagi identifies the giant insect as a form of Meganulon, an ancient species of dragonfly larvae that had lived on the Earth millions of years earlier (these insects would later reappear in 2000's Godzilla vs. Megaguirus). As the doctor reveals his findings, an earthquake suddenly strikes the area again. Rumors begin to circulate that Mt. Aso, a nearby volcano, might be on the verge of an eruption. When the police arrive at the base of the volcano to investigate the damage caused by the earthquake, they are shocked to discover a man wandering around the epicenter. When they reach him, they discover that it is Shigeru, somehow having escaped the mines and coming out at Mt. Aso.  However, he has received a blow to the head and has lost his memory.  The doctors are not optimistic about his chances for recovery, but nevertheless do their best to try to help him in any way that they can.

Several miles away, in Kyushu, an air base receives an alert from one of their jets. The pilot has observed an unidentified flying object performing impossible maneuvers at supersonic speeds. He is ordered to pursue the object at a distance, but as he follows it, the object suddenly changes course and turns around. The object then flies straight towards the jet and destroys it. Soon after, reports from all over the world come in about the UFO. The strange object is observed flying over China, the Philippines and Japan, and rumors of a secret military weapon test begin to circulate. Back in Japan, a newly married couple disappear, as well as several heads of cattle around Mt. Aso.  When the authorities develop the film from the newlyweds' camera, they discover a photograph of what appears to be a gigantic wing. They match the photo with a drawing of a Pteranodon, an ancient reptile thought to be extinct millions of years earlier.

Meanwhile, Shigeru's treatment is progressing slowly, but no one, especially not Kiyo, is giving up. One day, as Shigeru sits silently in his hospital room, Kiyo shows him the eggs that her pet birds have laid. As one of the eggs hatches, a terrible memory returns to Shigeru and he begins to freak out, regaining all of his memories.  He recall that deep within the mine, he awoke after the cave in. To his horror, he was surrounded by hundreds of Meganulon. The creatures crawled all around the cave, having survived millions of years underground. Shigeru then looked up and was shocked to see what appeared to be a giant egg sitting right in the middle of the cave. Suddenly, the egg began to stir and hatch. From out of the fractured shell emerged a gigantic, winged creature with a sharp beak and a head like a bird of prey. Shigeru watched in horror as the enormous hatchling bent over and began to eat all of the Meganulon. The monstrous insects that had terrorized the town and had killed his friends were nothing more than a snack to this new creature. With all of the Meganulon gone, the giant monster spread its wings and roared, and Shigeru blacked out. As he recovers from seeing the horrifying vision, Kiyo weeps with joy over his memory's return.  Shigeru confirms that the creature he saw did indeed resemble a pterosaur, and that it had eaten all of the Meganulon. He and a group of police and scientists once again descend into the mine and enter the cave where the egg had been. They are able to recover a fragment of the shell, and in a lab, Dr. Kashiwagi is able to determine the size of the egg and its age, finding it to be several million years old. After amassing the evidence, Kashiwagi calls a meeting with members of the town, along with members of the Japanese Self-Defence Force to communicate his findings. He tells the men that the UFO seen flying all across the world at supersonic speeds is a gigantic pteranodon he has named Rodan. The 50 meter tall monster is capable of flying at extremely fast speeds, which create a sonic boom that more than likely led to the destruction of the jet that had first observed it. Kashiwagi still has no explanation as to how the creature could have transversed the globe so quickly, and why reports of sightings occurred in multiple, distant countries at the same time. But, as to how Rodan could have resurfaced after millions of years, and why he and the Meganulon are so large, Kashiwagi theorizes that nuclear bomb testing, which loosened the Earth and opened cavities to long buried crevices and caves, might be the culprit.  Rodan's egg must have been in an ancient nest, and the mother, millions of years earlier, had filled that nest with insect larvae to feed the hatchling.  They had remained buried in suspended animation until nuclear tests loosened the ground, flooding the cavern with radiation, mutating and awakening the creatures.

Soon after, Rodan emerges from the ground near Mt. Aso, near where the beast had hatched. The creature takes flight and begins to head for Kyushu, with a squadron from the air force hot on his tail. They pursue Rodan over the city in what is an amazingly shot aerial action sequence - years ahead of its time - and it's extremely cool.  The jets eventually succeeds in forcing Rodan into a river. The flying reptile soon emerges, but his flight speed has been cut by half. Rodan flies over the buildings at Fukuoka, and the sonic wave created in its wake literally tears the structures apart. The flying monster lands in the city and flaps its wings, and the entire city is literally pulled down by its own weight. Fires spread as the men, and the machines who are on the defense are simply blown away. Just when it seems that things can't get worse, the JSDF reports that another Rodan has been spotted heading towards the city. With the mystery of the spread out sightings now revealed, the second Rodan now flies over and rips apart the buildings. After leveling the city and leaving the remaining buildings in flames, the monsters both fly away together, leaving thousands dead, and return to their nesting ground in Mt. Aso.  Apparently, there had been more than one egg, and it is implied that these two have possibly chosen each other as mates.

After ascertaining their location at their old nest in the base of Mt. Aso, the military plans to shell the volcano and trigger an eruption that will trap the monsters under the resulting lava. However, Kitamatsu will be completely destroyed in the attack, and the town is forced to evacuate.  Once everyone is out of harm's way, they launch rockets and torpedoes at the mountain, and soon the volcano begins to spew smoke and lava into the sky.  One of the Rodans emerges, but is soon overcome by the fumes. As the second Rodan arrives on the scene, the first loses altitude and finally falls into the stream of lava flowing down the side of the volcano. The ancient reptile begins to scream in pain as it burns alive in the lava. The military, Dr. Kashiwagi, Shigeru and Kiyo watch from a safe distance as the second Rodan watches its companion die in agony. Suddenly, the second Rodan descends and lands with the first in the lava, and it too begins to burn. Rather than live on alone, the creature will die with its companion. Whether they be siblings or mates, the two Rodans lie dying together in the flowing lava. Kiyo buries her head in Shigeru's shoulder and weeps, and both Kashiwagi and Shigeru watch solemnly as the two monsters, each unwilling to live without the other, die together on the slopes of the erupting volcano.  Interesting parallels are drawn in this final scene between the monsters and humanity.  Moments before their defeat, Kiyo had risked danger to come to Shigeru's side and watch the attack, willing to put herself in danger to be with the man she loves.  Even though the two Rodans caused a considerable amount of damage, it becomes clear as well that they weren't doing it out of any deep-rooted malice.  They were perhaps just too big for a world that had grown so much smaller since their age of origin.  Their death is all the more poignant as the military literally turns around, packs up, and heads out without even a second thought as soon as the creatures are dead, leaving Shigeru to wonder who the more monstrous species is.

Rodan is a solid movie with an intriguing plot, as well as showcasing some sincerely remarkable special effects.  While the ongoing thread of nuclear power being to blame is still present, as well as some heavy themes of man vs. nature as a mining company unearths horrors best left buried, Rodan starts to dip the series more towards the mythos of the Godzilla universe and the spectacle and power of it all, more than the deep, brooding symbolism.  As it should have been.  Japan was healing, and though anxieties still clearly existed, it was time for the series to evolve into something that could have more longevity.  The series begins finding its footing in the art of special effects films here; and in full color, it begins to even thrive.  There are so many incredible shots and well-choreographed action sequences in this film, it's clear that Ishiro Honda was cranking out true blockbusters well before the George Lucas' and Spielbergs of the 1970s. The aerial attack sequence is one of the best in the series, and its work like that which would eventually inform and inspire a great many sequences in American blockbusters like Star Wars for years to come.  There's even a pretty great shot that zooms in on a shocked Shigeru as he watches Rodan hatch that instantly brings to mind the famous use of the "Vertigo Zoom" used in Jaws (well, and Vertigo) several decades later - not to mention the scenes in the first act where the Meganulon are stalking people by hiding under the water off camera.  Brilliant work.  The makeup is even top notch here (one scene where they recover a pilot's helmet, spattered with blood, is really standout).  All in all, without the technical fine-tuning of Rodan, Godzilla would have likely never been able to thrive on the big screen.  And equally as fortunate, Rodan proved to be popular enough character that the creature would eventually return to the series, growing into one of the more popular monsters in the Godzilla franchise's roster.

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