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19 April, 2008

My Favorite Kaijû



Though Kaijû, or the Giant Monsters of Japanese cinema, aren’t everyone’s cup of sakê, I just can’t get enough of them. Fortunately, my love of Toho Studio’s city-stomping creations is an honest one, dating back to a childhood spent watching Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest rampaging across Japan, causing more destruction than a Phish concert. Of all the great monsters imported from Japan, however, one has always been my personal favorite, even more so than the undisputed King of Kaijû, Godzilla. That monster is Rodan, and 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of his debut.

I can’t really say what makes Rodan my favorite. Looking like a gigantic Pterodactyl, able to fly so fast that his supersonic wake can shatter skyscrapers, he just seemed so very… cool to a nine or ten-year old MonsterKid. He didn’t need to stomp cities into the ground, he just flew over, and the cities fell. No muss, no fuss, just total destruction.

I think another reason Rodan held such appeal for me is that all my friends were either Godzilla or Gamera fans, and I’ve always hated following the crowd. A natural iconoclast, I needed a favorite that was different from everyone else’s, something that stood out. Ghidorah was too evil; besides, he was always getting his ass kicked. Mothra was just too much of a girl’s kind of Kaijû. Rodan was just right.

His debut feature, SORA NO DAIKAIJÛ RADON ~aka~ RODAN, [see my review of the Sony DVD of the film below…] is one of the best of the Showa series movies, those Kaijû films made by Toho from 1954 to 1985. And Rodan was one of the most popular monsters during the Showa period, appearing in no fewer than eight Toho films, though some of his appearances were through the use of stock footage, a common cost-cutting measure employed by the studio. Often cast as an ally of Godzilla, it was easy to root him on, as he and Godzilla would deal with whatever alien-controlled Kaijû was sent to ravage the Japanese homeland this time out.

One of the best movies of this period was 1968’s KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI ~aka~ DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. It was also a typical mid-Showa Kaijû Eiga (literally, Monster Movie…), featuring Aliens working behind the scenes, controlling the various Monsters, using them as weapons as they sought to conquer the Earth. Invariably, Godzilla, along with either Mothra or Rodan, would revolt against the alien overlords, defeating the hostile Kaijû, and foiling the alien’s plans. This was a common theme in all three eras of Kaijû Eiga; in fact, the most recent film, and the final film in the Millennium series, GOJIRA: FAINARU UÔZU ~aka~ GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, is little more than a remake of KAIJÛ SÔSHINGEKI.

Rodan had a significant role in this, his fourth film. Though he was originally dispatched to destroy Moscow, Russia, he was freed from the alien mind control device and, along with Godzilla, Mothra, and Manda defeated first the Kilaaks, then the creature resurrected to combat the Kaijû, King Ghidorah.

Movies like DESTROY ALL MONSTERS were what summers were for when I was young. Spending the morning at the “Kiddee Show” at the local theater, me, my little brother, and our friends fueling our imaginations with decade-old Kaijû classics; then heading over to the neighborhood park in the afternoon. In the early ‘70’s, litigation had not yet replaced baseball as the national pastime, and children were still allowed to assume a modicum of risk when playing outside. The local park had an enormous ‘Jungle Gym’ type structure built in the shape of a rocket ship, one which would become our Kaijû-fighting spacecruiser after one of these Monster Matinees. Sure, it was built out of iron, resting on a massive slab of concrete, but I don’t recall one of us ever getting more than a cut or bruise playing on it. I do recall, however, hours spent talking about these monsters, arguing over which was the best, pretending that we were battling them, just being fans… just being kids.

The 1970’s weren’t kind to Rodan; though he appeared in three more Showa films (CHIKYÛ KOGEKI MEIREI: GOJIRA TAI GAIGAN ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. GIGAN, (1972); GOJIRA TAI MEGARO ~aka~ GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, (1973); and MEKAGOJIRA NO GYAKUSHU ~aka~ TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, (1975)…) his appearances were limited to reused stock footage.

Tokyo was safe from the Kaijû for an entire decade following TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, until the Heisei era began with GOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA 1985. Gone was the concept of Godzilla, as well as the other Kaijû, as Japan’s protectors; he was back, and he was bad. But it would be 1993 before Rodan made his lone Heisei appearance, in GOJIRA VS MEKAGOJIRA ~aka~ GODZILLA vs. MECHAGODZILLA II. But what the Heisei-era lacked in quantity was more than made up in quality, as he was revealed to be a “brother” of Baby Godzilla, died, was resurrected as Fire Rodan, and finally gave up his life force to save Godzilla. Heisei Kaijû films were nothing if not imaginative.

Rodan has made one more appearance thus far, in the aforementioned GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the final film in the Millennium series which began with GOJIRA NI-SEN MIRENIAMU ~aka~ GODZILLA 2000 (1999). Though his role in GFW wasn’t as important as his fans no doubt desired, it was great to see him in action one more time, as he attacked New York City with gusto.

Now it’s the 50th anniversary of his screen debut. Have we seen the last of Rodan, Godzilla, Mothra, and the rest? Possible… but I won’t bet on it. Because if there’s one thing that we fans of Kaijû understand, it’s this:

You just can’t keep a good monster down.




















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