While his fame has dwindled somewhat in modern times, Rodan was once nearly as famous as Godzilla himself. Nowadays the monstrous pterosaur is generally considered little more than a member of the Monster King’s rogues gallery, or perhaps as Godzilla’s sidekick, but I think that’s a disservice to the samurai of the skies. Rodan’s past notoriety was deserved, in no small part thanks to the pterosaur’s marvelous debut film.
Rodan begins standard enough. A small mining community is doing their business (mining) when some of the miners begin to disappear. Eventually they discover that giant grubs the size of rhinoceros have been awoken inside the mine by a nearby nuclear test! The miners fight off the insects, and it all seems pretty standard. Giant bugs were one of the most common variations on the kaiju story, after all, and fighting them in a tight, underground, claustrophobic area was likewise a pretty tried and true formula, occurring in movies like Them! and The Black Scorpion.
Things change when one miner gets trapped inside the mountain by a landslide. He finds a massive cavern where all the bugs are gathered… and a large, strange boulder in the center of it. The boulder begins to stir and crack – it’s an egg! And then, right at the start of the second act, everything goes from bad to catastrophically worse as the egg hatches, revealing a massive flying reptile! It devours the insects before flying off to wreak havoc.
The monster’s reign of terror proves unstoppable. Worse, it is soon discovered that there isn’t just one flying reptile, but two – a mating pair! The Rodans work together to hunt stray humans and destroy a good section of Japan (not in as much grisly depth as the attacks in Gojira, mind you). Eventually the humans discover that these monstrous reptiles are sleeping in a dormant volcano, which the humans reactivate. The volcano erupts, but one Rodan escapes! The other, however, swallows too much smoke and begins to spiral down into the lava below. The escaping Rodan turns around and joins its mate, choosing to die with it instead of live alone. It’s a haunting ending, and another reminder that the monsters in these movies aren’t evil, but victims – as Ishiro Honda said, they are “born too big, too tall, too strong – that is their tragedy.”
Rodan is a really solid Atomic Horror story with some great twists and a lot of scary moments for its time. I have a lot of nostalgia for it, too. I remember being a little kid who was just beginning to get into monster movies in YE OLDE DAYS where TNT had its wonderful monster movie marathons. It’s amazing how distinct the memory of those nights is – I remember sitting on the old maroon carpet of my parent’s place as the announcer said in that wonderful, theatrical voice, “It’s TNT’s MONSTERVISION!” and on came Rodan in bright colors and grainy footage. I remember how the bug scenes scarred the crap out of me (not literally, thank god), and how I audibly gasped when the first Rodan hatched out of its egg and devoured them like worms. Good times, good times.
Rodan would eventually crossover with Godzilla and another big hitter of Toho’s creation. At least one of the flying reptiles survived its lava bath and would form a brief rivalry with Godzilla before becoming one of his most valuable allies, even if their friendship was always a somewhat competitive one. I’m really surprised none of the American Atomic Horror films tried this out – it worked for the Universal Monster films before them, and with Japan proving that the formula still worked, you’d think someone would try to get an American monster mash going. Life’s full of mysteries I suppose.
But let’s focus again on Rodan himself – or herself, since we can’t be certain which of the two Rodans survived (or what gender either Rodan had, for that matter). I think it’s a shame that Rodan’s successive film appearances all dropped a quintessential part of Rodan’s characterization, namely his/her/its devotion to its loved one. That scene where Rodan dives into the lava to save its mate, only to perish alongside it, is so, well, iconic. While the Showa films played up Rodan’s ferocity and ego to give it a sort of competitive rivalry-turned-friendship with Godzilla (to great effect, mind you), they never played upon Rodan’s loyalty. The only movie to get close to this was the Heisei/90’s version of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, wherein Rodan viewed Godzilla Jr. as an adoptive son and spent most of the movie fighting Godzilla for custody. Rodan was beaten twice in its attempt to save the baby, and on the final occasion gave its energy to Godzilla to ensure that someone would protect the tyke. It may seem like a small thing, but to me it’s such an important thing – that compassion and deep, self-sacrificing love is what makes Rodan more than just another big brutish monster. He’s still a brute, sure, but Rodan’s a lover as well as a fighter.
Of course, the big reason Rodan doesn’t get to show off this trait is that it costs a LOT of money just to have one Rodan, and since Rodan sells a lot more tickets when he’s paired with different monsters (specifically Godzilla), it’s just good business to, y’know, spend any money you would have used to make two Rodans on making different monsters instead. We’ll probably never see Rodan with its mate ever again, and that’s just a shame.