Friday, May 22, 2009

Rodan (1956)

After a relatively minor break-in of water in a coal mine in the Japanese Kyushu province, one of the miners is found dead, killed in a hardly explicable way and bearing the strangest wounds. Still, the only suspect for the death is another miner called Goro who disappeared during the break-in and has had quite a history of violent altercations with the dead man.

Neither Goro's sister Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa), nor her boyfriend, the young mining engineer Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) believe the miner to be capable of killing someone, though.

They are soon proven right, when more people are killed, all bearing the same, inexplicable pattern of wounds. What really killed these people is a giant creature that looks rather like a cross between a caterpillar and a crab. Since this is Toho's Japan, there is little skepticism towards the existence of giant monsters and so an early involvement of the JASDF and the biologist Professor Kashiwagi (Akihiko Hirata) in the plot.

Shigeru, who turns out to be quite a heroic young man, is buried alive during the JASDF's fight against the murderous creature which itself doesn't seem to survive the clash with its human food source.

Shigeru is thought dead, but a small earthquake frees the lucky engineer. He must have seen something terrible while he was trapped in the mines, and now suffers from amnesia. When he finally starts to remember what it is that he has seen, he relates a frightening tale of a mine full of the creeping caterpillar things and something worse - a gigantic egg from which a winged reptile hatches, a thing itself so big that it eats the caterpillars the army had such difficulty fighting like small snacks.

One can't help but think that the things Shigeru has witnessed have a connection with the gigantic unidentified object that has been witnessed flying over parts of Asia with a speed no plane could reach and eating planes for breakfast.

Based on Shigeru's description and an out of focus photograph, Kashiwagi develops the theory that a combination of chance and radiation has caused the development of a biological mutant and the meaner and bigger brother of the Pteranodon, the Radon, has returned out of the past.

Rodan is the the third (or first, or fourth, depending on the way you count them) of Toho's kaiju eiga and the first to be made in colour. Directed by the great Ishiro Honda, it is a strikingly beautiful film that would probably be worth watching for some of the colour compositions alone.

To the kaiju fans delight, Rodan (which should be called Radon, but had to be renamed to avoid trouble with a toy making corporation), is also quite a brilliant piece of writing. Sure, you'll have to ignore the weak explanation for the existence of the film's giant monsters, but if you are unable to do that, no giant monster film will ever find your approval. What the script by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata does oh so right is the use of escalation. From one murder to an unseen monster to the caterpillars to the army fighting the caterpillars to Rodan to something I am not going to spoil, the film never stops making everything bigger and every stake a little higher, putting the kind of stuff people like Jerry Bruckheimer do today to shame. I was surprised how thrilling in the way modern blockbusters often try to be a fifty years old film I must have seen a dozen times as a child still can be (at least in its Japanese cut - the eight to ten minutes cut from the American version can't mean anything good).

The film also has the fortune to have come quite early in Toho's kaiju sequence, affording it an obviously high budget and a certain sense of unpredictability of the proceedings.

Rodan has a feeling of freshness about it. Nobody behind the camera had already made a dozen films of the same type, and everybody was at the top of his game, making something new and exciting here. Honda's direction is as meticulous as always with tighter pacing than in many of his later films. Honda also shows a subtle sense for smaller gestures made by the actors, something that you can in fact always find in his films, if you are willing to look for it.

The actors don't have all that much to do, of course, but everyone on screen is more than able to make her or his character credible.

That Tsuburaya's special effects are splendid and Ifukube's music excellent barely needs to be mentioned.

The only thing I find myself able to criticize about Rodan is the film's lack of depth when compared to the original Gojira, but complaining about this seems to me rather like someone complaining that the diamond he got as a present just isn't big enough.


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