After the lukewarm critical response to Godzilla Raids Again, Toho decided to step away from The King of Monsters for a bit. Shelving Godzilla didn’t mean they were going to let up their monopoly on kaiju films. Now they had a new weapon in their arsenal however – colour. The studio had already shot one colour tokusatsu (special effects driven) film already, Madame White Snake. So while Rodan was the studio’s first full-colour kaiju film, it was Eiji Tsuburaya’s second time doing a colour tokusatsu film. In an effort to recapture some of the spark of the first Godzilla film, the studio turned once again to Ishirō Honda to direct.
Honda was, after all, a skilled director whose mastery of tone and theme was largely responsible for the quality of Godzilla. His directorial skill, plus his personal experience as a soldier and prisoner of war, provided the film with a necessary legitimacy. He’d worked under Akira Kurasawa in the early stages of his career and remained a close friend with the director, eventually working with him again later in life. They met each other when they both served as assistant directors under Kajiro Yamamoto on Otto no Teisou. The two had, at this point, also worked together on Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, a film that saw Honda taking the role of assistant director.
It made sense for Toho to bring a good director like Ishirō Honda back in the hopes of reclaiming some of the critical legitimacy lost by Godzilla Raids Again. Also complimentary to this goal was the studio’s choice of writer. Toho hired Ken Kuronuma to write the story. Kuronuma was best known for his translations of American stories and translations for the Japanese edition of Amazing Stories. This science fiction pedigree made him the ideal person to capture the broad strokes of the story. Kuronuma drew on a real life story for Rodan, specifically an incident in Kentucky with a supposed flying saucer. Perhaps the biggest thing separating Rodan from the original Godzilla is the lack of thematic potential inherent in the initial concept. The script, written by Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata (who’d worked on Godzilla) focused on a small town mine and two lovers who live in the area. The idea was to have a story revolving around a UFO sighting that turns out to be awakened prehistoric pteranodons. The script also adds in a whole other monster based off the ants in the popular film THEM! to provide earlier scenes in the movie with much needed action.
Ishirō Honda’s direction is notably different from Godzilla. Godzilla’s grimy documentarian vibe no longer suited the epic and romantic nature of this new film, nor would it fully capture the incredible special effects Eiji Tsuburaya would bring to the table. Instead Rodan is more cinematic, better showing off the colour and location work. There are plenty of sweeping panoramic shots of hills and unsettling murky shots of mines. The lighting challenges presented by the colour camera meant Tsuburaya could only film at night on the sets he’d built. The summer heat combined with the amount of lighting necessary would have just been too hot. Whenever he could, Tsuburaya built his sets outside.
For the actual design of Rodan, the second ever kaiju to anchor a film, the Toho team once again turned to prehistory for inspiration. The movie never bothers to hide this, claiming Rodan is a species of pteranodon. This is naturally untrue. The name Rodan actually started as Radon, but it was changed for American release so it didn’t resemble the element. Radon was intended as a mixture of pteranodon and radioactivity. Much like the American spelling of Anguirus, the North American moniker stuck and eventually just became the name of the creature. The name for this version of the Rodan suit, ShodaiRado, comes from a portmanteau of Shodai, meaning first generation, and Radon. The ShodaiRado suit is fairly distinct from future variations. For one thing this is the only film that sees Rodan have a fallen chestnut complexion. In other films Rodan would become a close ally of Godzilla, inspiring a less menacing version of the daikaiju. The ShodaiRado has a more malicious face – a broad, jagged beak, and eerie teeth. This all makes for a much crueler version of the character.
Rodan presented the special effects mastermind with a unique opportunity. Not only was Eiji Tsuburaya shooting in colour for only the second time but also he was allotted an unprecedented 60 percent of the film’s budget, far more than on Godzilla. The other exciting change of pace with Rodan was the element of flight. Eiji Tsuburaya was no stranger to planes but having a flying kaiju meant that Rodan didn’t always need to be a man in a suit. If Rodan could change in scale so could the models built by Tsuburaya, allowing for a variety of levels of detail. They built models at 1/10, 1/20, 1/25, and 1/30. One model, the volcano for the film’s fiery finale, was built at a monolithic 1/3 scale. There was a smaller version used to simulate the final eruption, which used actual molten metal to imitate lava. One department store that Rodan had to land on was built using actual steel beams to support the weight of Haruo Nakajima.
Haruo Nakajima had become an integral part of the Toho kaiju team. His emotive suit-work was a huge part of the illusion of personality granted to these creatures. Ishirō Honda was especially interested in granting these creatures individual mannerisms, viewing them as characters instead of monsters. When talking about Rodan, Honda remarked that, “Monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy.” This sympathy could only be achieved through the excellent performances given by Nakajima. The consummate perfectionist studied animals at the zoo, practiced, faced exhaustion and health risks, even turned down an offer from an American studio, for Toho.
One of Haruo Nakajima’s riskiest shots came in Rodan. The actor may have already dealt with fire, fumes, falling ice, and heat exhaustion but while filming Rodan he almost drowned. One of the film’s bigger set pieces is used when Rodan’s soaring causes the Saikai bridge to collapse, driven over by the force of the air coming off the creature’s wings. The destruction of the 1/20 scale model could only be attempted once. Operators had to pull the dangling Rodan over the bridge while others yanked on wires connected to the tin model. The collapse of the bridge was attempted once and filmed simultaneously from several angles. Before the actual collapse of the bridge Rodan had to be pulled up from under the water. The wires broke, plunging Haruo Nakajima twenty feet into the water in a 150-pound dinosaur costume. Luckily the water broke his fall. Unluckily he was in a heavy rubber costume underwater. The crew managed to get him high and dry before he suffered any serious injuries. The incident paused the destruction of the bridge, giving them another chance to do the scene. That means Nakajima dutifully strapped himself into to the rig that had failed and did it again.
The plot of the film is fairly simple. There’s an accident in a mine and murder is suspected. The miners start investigating. The suspected murderer has a sister, who our uninspired protagonist is courting. So our protagonist involves himself heavily in the investigation, convinced the murderous accusations are false. He’s proven correct before long when a collection of fierce giant insects is discovered. They’ve been living in the mines and picking off miners. The ShodaiMeganuron suit is a long segmented bug with bulbous eyes and crablike pincers. In the hunt to capture the Meganuron, our hero, Shigeru, winds up trapped in the mine. As he pursues the insects back to their nest a temblor strikes and buries our hero.
When a second earthquake arrives a massive cavern opens in the ground. When the investigative group rolls in they find a figure wandering around the desolate hole. It’s Shigeru, now stricken with a case of amnesia. Meanwhile an airbase and their pilot both notice a strange occurrence. Something large is moving at supersonic speed, assaulting other things in the air. They believe this occurrence to be a UFO. A camera captures a blurry photo of the attacker. A scientist at the base recognizes the contours of the form as a pteranodon wing, but his theory is reasonably dismissed as far-fetched.
Shigeru’s lady friend starts trying to spark some familiar memories, but nothing seems to be catching. At least not until Shigeru looks at a bird’s nest. The sight of the eggs resting within the straw nest instigates a violent moment of recollection. Shigeru recalls being underground, trapped in the cave. The Meganurons are crawling nearby and, in the centre of the cave, is an egg. The egg cracks and a massive birdlike creature emerges. It looks around at the fierce and murderous Meganurons before casually snacking on them.
Then Shigeru meets with the army and confirms the leap of logic the scientist has already come to – there are pteranodons afoot. They retrieve a piece of the daikaiju’s egg and the age of the shell is determined. The egg has been sitting underground for some 200 million years. This seems to confirm the theory. The scientist also insists it explains why the creature has been spotted all over the world already; it’s just that fast a monster. The biggest mystery is self-evident. How would such an ancient creature survive for so long? The scientist has no idea, but posits something vague about atomic bombs and radiation.
It’s not until about halfway through Rodan that we really get to see the titular daikaiju in all it’s glory. From that point on the film transforms into an almost non-stop onslaught of destruction and monster-on-jet dogfights. Eiji Tsuburaya continues the exploration of fast-paced kaiju action he started in Godzilla Raids Again. Between his work and Ishirō Honda’s direction, the action in Rodan is fast and violent. The air alone coming off Rodan’s wings tears whole swathes of Eiji Tsuburaya’s wonderfully realized urban environments apart. There’s an incredible amount of viscera and fuliginous atmosphere. These scenes are filled with tumbling debris, clouds of dust, missile smoke, and sparks. It’s the most violent image of destruction in a kaiju film yet, and almost retroactively justifies the rest of the film.
The film’s biggest twist comes part way through this marathon of destruction. It turns out there’s a second Rodan, and he too collaborates to generate even more damage. After devastating the army and town, the two fly away. The army tracks them, successfully establishing the location of their nest. It is perched on a volcano, and the army plans to shell the thing and drown both the Rodans in lava. This leads to the pathos filled finale. The army effectively triggers the volcano, which erupts in a jaw dropping brisance. The two kaiju models slowly fall into the lava. There was a small problem with one of the two puppets in this scene, accidentally making the first falling Rodan look like it’s trying to escape from the lava. This fortuitous flaw lends the whole scene an extra moment of realism. The two Rodans end up looking like they’d rather die together than live apart, a sombre ending to the thrill ride preceding it.
The film was a big success. The edited American version, featuring the vocal styling of George Takei, was a big financial boon for the studio earning an estimated $450 000 on its opening weekend. Part of this might have been due to the unprecedented amount of advertising for the film. Eiji Tsuburaya was awarded another Japan Technical Award for his work on the film. More importantly though the record breaking earnings (for a movie of this pedigree) meant that American studios were now convinced these Japanese monster movies were no fluke. Toho and kaiju were moneymakers.