Monday, February 22, 2010

Thundering Out of Unknown Skies

Rodan, the Flying Monster
(Sora no Daikaiju Radon, 1956)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, Japanese and U.S. versions of War of the Gargantuas, commentary, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata, Yoshifumi Tajima

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Much like Godzilla Raids Again (Gigantis, the Fire Monster), the American version of Rodan, the Flying Monster, released by King Brothers in 1957, was substantially re-edited, with obligatory scenes of atomic tests inserted at the beginning and endless narration by Chinese actor Keye Luke added to the soundtrack. Numerous scenes were re-arranged or excised altogether, occasionally to good effect, though mostly to the film's detriment. Apart from the tedious narration, the most notable alteration is the elimination of the greater part of Akira Ifukube's somber musical score, which was replaced with mediocre stock library music. Regardless, Rodan performed well for King Brothers, and the giant, radioactively mutated flying rubber critter became a very popular addition to Toho's parade of daikaiju.

The first half of the movie dwells on suspense and fear of the unknown, resulting from the gruesome mutilations and murders of miners working deep underground. The killers are revealed to be Meganurons, a species of giant prehistoric insect, presumably revived after millions of years. (In the American version, blame is laid directly upon the aforementioned nuclear tests, while in the Japanese version, the nuclear angle is less prominent, with volcanic activity being the direct catalyst.) Unfortunately, the giant insect suits and puppets appear more whimsical than menacing, though several distant nighttime shots of the creatures make for fairly spooky visuals. It isn't long, though, before disasters and bizarre phenomena begin to occur far beyond the borders of the Kyushu mining town, such as airplane crashes, ship sinkings, and sightings of gigantic UFOs. The same seismic activity that brought forth the Meganurons has also resurrected not one but two giant winged reptiles, similar to Pteranodons, known as "Radon" in the Japanese version, "Rodan" in the American. "Radon" is obviously a contraction of the syllables in Pteranodon, but would probably have caused American audiences to wonder if the monster were a ferocious cloud of radioactive gas.

With the significant alterations of the soundtrack, the American version frequently comes across as much "noisier" than the Japanese, in which there are long spells of deathly silence, particularly in the early portions of the film. On occasion, the more frenetic soundtrack serves to enhance the action, such as the attack by the military on the Meganurons inside the mine, which culminates in protagonist Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) dispatching them by ramming them with a coal tram, and the hatching of the first Rodan, which in the American version is accompanied by its screeching roar.

In the Japanese version, a single Rodan first appears and is joined by the second only during its attack on Fukuoka, whereas in the American version—simply by means of reversing the frame—the second Rodan appears immediately following the first. The appearance of the second in the Japanese version is more subtle, but adds a somewhat greater element of surprise. And in the American version, there's an attack staged on the Rodans prior to the final assault at Mount Aso (called Mount Toya), accomplished by means of splicing various bits of footage together, to a most unsatisfactory effect.

Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects are frequently superb, particularly during Rodan's attack on Fukuoka, with actor Haruo Nakajima performing in a beautifully designed, very evil-looking Rodan suit. (Would that subsequent incarnations of the monster appeared so impressive.) Rodan was the first of Toho's daikaiju films to be shot in color, and the exquisitely detailed miniature work oftentimes appears as impressive as that in the original Godzilla, which had the advantage of black-and-white cinematography to help disguise flaws in the special effects. The finale of the film, in which the military launches a massive artillery barrage on Mount Aso to bury the Rodans beneath the volcano, plays out a bit long, with one explosion after another, but if nothing else, the result is spectacular, and the ending, with the Rodans perishing in the volcanic eruption, elicits a bit of pathos atypical of most giant monster films of the day. This is the one point in the American version in which the poignant narration adds something other than tedium to the film.

As mentioned, Keye Luke provides the voice of Shigeru in the American version; you'll also hear the familiar voices of Star Trek actor George Takei and the ubiquitous Paul "Boris Badenov" Frees, each playing several characters and providing numerous background voices. While the voices oftentimes match the actors' lip movements reasonably well, their faux Japanese accents have a tendency to leave one in stitches, which can't help but undercut the serious tone of the film.

On the Classic Media DVD, the Japanese version is easily the better quality of the two. The print is clear, if occasionally a little dark, and the soundtrack is far richer in tone. The American version is horrendous—frequently washed out so badly that it's difficult to discern detail. The fact that the original, unedited Japanese version is the superior of the two anyway makes it the one to most appreciate in this package. Still and all, given that the set includes four full movies at a reasonable price, Rodan/War of the Gargantuas is another winner from Classic Media.

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