Toho had two big successes with Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again. Obviously it was time for another sequel, right? Nope! You must remember that most creature features in the 1950’s were one offs – no one made Them 2! or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Returns. If anything, creators would go on to make another monster movie altogether, one that was at best tangentially similar to the first. Godzilla getting a sequel was an oddity, and for a while Toho seemed set to follow the trends of the time. As such, Godzilla Raids Again was followed by a film starring an all-new monster: Rodan.
Like the two Godzilla films before it, Rodan begins with the titular monster’s screams overlaid with the now familiar and downright iconic musical stylings of Akira Ifukube. I think this is the movie where director Ishiro Honda and his team really cemented their film-making voice, with all high points of their experimentation in the previous two Godzilla films coalescing into a storytelling style. While Rodan isn’t technically a Godzilla movie, it’s nonetheless a key moment in the Godzilla series’ transformation from typical atom age creature features to their own distinct entity within the creature feature canon.
The plot of Rodan starts simply enough. We’re introduced to a group of miners who are facing significant problems with their latest project: specifically, some of them have gone missing. They discover one of the miners very quickly, since he happens to be dead. A medical examination reveals the man’s head had been slashed open by what the doctor assumes was a knife, though he wonders aloud what kind of knife could cut so deep in one blow. The other missing miner, Goro, is suspected of doing the deed by some of his coworkers, though the miner Shigeru tries to defend him (probably because Shigeru is dating Goro’s sister, Kiyo). This may seem like an unnecessary detail, but tying the complexity of human life to a plot about monsters is a key component to these kaiju films.
A search party enters the mines in hopes of finding Goro. While exploring a flooded section of the mine, they hear an unearthly screeching sound of some unseen creature (a technique either stolen from or done in homage to the giant ant movie Them!, which predated Rodan by a good three years). Said creature proceeds to pull two of them under, before descending upon the remaining survivors, all while remaining unseen by the audience. Unfortunately, the disappearance of the search party is promptly blamed on Goro – after all, the wounds on the bodies were made by the same slashing weapon.
Luckily, the true assailant reveals itself when it breaks into the village and attacks Shigeru, and the audience learns the monster is none other than a giant larval insect. The beast runs rampant, killing a few police officers before retreating into the mine once more. Shigeru offers to search the mine for Goro since he’s still trapped in there (ignoring the incredibly likely possibility that Goro is almost certainly dead),while the goddamn army shows up to enter the mine. The alarming speed of the army’s reaction probably makes more sense if you headcanon that this story takes place in the same universe as Godzilla, as does everyone’s fairly quick transition from “oh shit there are monsters in the mine” to “let’s wipe out these giant bugs.” Since this movie was retroactively made into part of the same story universe as the Godzilla films, it’s a pretty easy headcanon to maintain!
By this point we’re still in the first act of the movie, and yet the scene taking place feels like something out of the third act of your typical 50’s giant bug movie (there were a lot of those, we’ll talk about them eventually). Hell, Shigeru even pulls a bold, heroic act of jumping in a minecart to go on far ahead of the army and find Goro, which is such a third act climactic moment. Yet, again, we’re still in the first act of the movie. This had to have been confusing and perhaps a little unsettling for audiences at the time – isn’t this monster movie going too fast? Shouldn’t they drag this out a bit? You can’t raid the giant bug nest twenty minutes into the movie! What’s the rest of the film going to be about?
Well, luckily (for us), the raid doesn’t go well. Shigeru gets caught in a cave in, and the mine is closed off. The following day, a team of miners, military personnel, police, and scientists discuss how they should proceed, only for an earthquake to split the ground open. Worried that this may mean the local volcano may be awakening, some of the team goes to investigate and, amazingly, finds Shigeru at the newly opened trench in the surface of the earth. The poor miner is broken both physically and mentally, as something deeply traumatized him while he was trapped in the earth. He is, essentially, shell shocked.
Meanwhile, an unidentified flying object is sighted, and it is both massive and ridiculously fast, flying 1.5 times faster than the plane pursuing it can go. We see a shot of the two together, and the UFO utterly dwarfs the jet – especially when it turns around and crashes right into the plane! The film cuts directly to the skywatchers standing over the blood-stained helmet of the slain jet pilot as they try to figure out what could have possibly done this strange and horrible act. Again, everyone is quick to agree it must be a monster, which really makes much more sense if you think this takes place in a world that’s already faced two Godzillas and one Anguirus.
Soon after, a married couple is taking photos on a dormant volcano when a massive flying thing knocks them over just by the sheer gust caused by its wings tearing through the sky. The film cuts to police examining the scant remains of the couple, including the film from their camera. The last photo is particularly important, as they managed to capture a picture of the monster’s wing right before they were, well, probably devoured. The scientists that were examining the giant insects examine the photo and conclude that, like the insects, the winged beast is a prehistoric creature – specifically a Pteranodon. Or, if you will, a Radon for short? And if you won’t because Radon is the name of an element, would you say a…. RODAN?
Boom, movie title.
Kiyo takes care of the shell-shocked Shigeru, all while trying to help him out of his traumatized state. She shows him their pet birds, which just laid eggs, and it triggers a painful memory for Shigeru. We flashback to the mine, where Shigeru is surrounded by the massive bugs. They aren’t the focal point, however, as the true star of the movie lies in an enormous egg at the center of the chamber. The baby Rodan hatches from the egg and promptly snaps up all the insects like, well, like a bird snatching up bugs. While Rodan’s gluttony saves Shigeru from being bug chow, the miner is nonetheless terrified, since the problem has just escalated from “a bunch of cow-sized insects” to “a flying carnivorous reptile that’s over 150 feet tall.”
So the movie has essentially done a switcheroo, starting as a giant bug movie only to become a prehistoric beast on the loose movie instead. The somewhat formulaic nature of the story’s beginning actually plays into the twist splendidly, allowing the threat of the movie to escalate in a truly unique fashion without having to reinvent the wheel. If it sounds like I’m gushing, I am. This is an ingenious twist on this movie’s part, and one that really helps Rodan stand out among its atom age peers – American giant monster movies were rarely this clever. After two movies of roughly following convention, Ishiro Honda and his team were already playing with the genre’s formulas to terrific effect.
The movie isn’t finished with that, either. A military scouting party finds Rodan nesting in the countryside, and, after taking a few casualties, they get reinforcements, with planes flying out in search of the monster. Though their missiles have almost no effect, the jets try to lead Rodan out to the ocean, hoping to keep the monster away from populated areas. Sadly, Rodan moves so fast and erratically that this proves impossible, and ultimately the flying reptile causes a LOT of damage just by flying over buildings so fast that they can’t stand the wind left in its wake. Like Godzilla before it, Rodan outdoes humanity at every turn, and eventually lands in Fukuoka to wreak complete havoc. Tanks bombard the beast to little effect and, just when you think it can’t get any worse, a second Rodan shows up.
Yes, just in time for the end of the second act, we have a second major twist in the story. First we learned that there was a bigger beast to fear than the giant bugs, and no we discover that instead of one prehistoric titan, there are two – a mated pair at that! Soon there could be a whole race of Rodans flying the earth, with humanity being powerless to stop them. The couple destroys all opposition and leaves Fukuoka in flames before flying off to parts unknown.
A task force assembles and discusses how to deal with the monster, eventually deciding to trigger a volcanic eruption in the mountain the Rodans are nesting on. While they have plans for an evacuation beforehand, with team member mentions that not just the people are at risk, but valuable farms as well. It’s a small thing, but it’s a detail that makes these movies more thoughtful than most other creature features – Rodan, like the Godzilla films before it, makes a point to show that catastrophes affect us in a variety of ways, beyond just the loss of life.
The plan is carried out regardless, and after a series of manmade explosions, the volcano finally erupts as the Rodans shriek in terror. They try to flee, but while the first Rodan makes it to the air in time, the second isn’t so fortunate, being choked by the ash and smoke before it can properly escape. The colossal beast falls to the volcano below and is swallowed by a stream of lava, bursting into flames as it desperately calls to its mate. The other Rodan dives down to help its significant lover, getting caught in the flames and perishing alongside its mate. Shigeru and Kiyo watch the spectacle from afar and, despite the terror the beasts caused, they cannot help being overwhelmed at the tragedy of the two monsters who would rather die together than live alone. Much like the ending of Godzilla before it, Rodan denies its audience the ability to rejoice in the death of its monsters.
Rodan isn’t as politically charged as Godzilla was, which might be why it isn’t as highly regarded by modern film critics. While it technically continues the anti-nuclear testing theme of its predecessor, it does so with a single short line, focusing far more on the literal monster plot than on what the monster represents. I actually think that’s to the movie’s advantage though, as the real strength of Rodan lies in how it builds on, twists, and subverts the formulas of the monster movies that came before it. There’s so much invention and creativity poured into the movie’s story structure that it’s easy to forgive its somewhat thin figurative meaning in comparison to Godzilla. Rodan was a fresh take in its own right, treading new ground in how monster movies can be structured, and paving the way for even stranger experiments to come. If it doing so required sacrificing some thematic oomph, I think the end result was more than worth the cost.
Moreover, Rodan continues where Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again left off when it comes to Toho’s greatest trademark technique: treating its bestial giant monsters as characters. The Rodans, terrifying and destructive as they are, aren’t compelled by unmotivated malice or a plot’s need for conflict. They’re living beings who exhibit the most basic drives of any creature: they need to eat, they need to protect their territory, and most of all, they need companionship. While the audience may root for the military when they first start bombing the volcano, one can’t help feeling a little disturbed when the escaping Rodan screams in horror as its shrieking mate is consumed in fire. How can any compassionate person not feel at least a twinge of guilt when the survivor then dives down into the flames in a doomed attempt to rescue said mate? These aren’t the actions one would give the soulless monsters of Them! or The Giant Gila Monster – this is characterization, and that characterization triggers a profound emotional reaction that makes Rodan feel more than a simple monster movie. You don’t forget that ending – it sticks with you.
While it may not star Godzilla himself, Rodan is nonetheless a crucial step in the road that lead to Godzilla’s series becoming such a unique and influential part of the great canon of monster stories. Toho would take a few more years yet to get back to Godzilla, with other interesting experiments occurring in its wake, but already one can see their trademark style starting to form. With this film, the company discovered that there were far more stories they could tell with their monsters than the simple formulas Hollywood was using. Bigger, stranger, and even better things were on the horizon.