The third daikaiju eiga made by Toho Films in as many years, 1956's Rodan marks a decisive graduation in the subgenre's fate.1954's Godzilla was a prestigious, impressive film, but its sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, was decidedly not - it was a cheap little quickie designed to cash in on kaiju mania RIGHT NOW. And as with all such hectic, mercenary gestures, it was met with no real affection by its target audience. Rodan, though, Rodan got things back on track but good. You can smell the money on Rodan, not least because it was Toho's first monster movie to be shot in color (and depending on where you file Daiei's Warning from Space, arguably the first color daikaiju eiga overall), and its titular monster can fly, way more impressive and amazing than just some ol' lumbering dinosaur.

And indeed, Rodan, when we see it - them, actually, for the film turns out to have a mated pair of Rodans - is impressive more often than not, though the model used for the supersonic flying sequences is unmistakably rigid and shaped more according to aeronautic rather than evolutionary requirements. Still, considering that it has to stand up to the added scrutiny of color, Rodan looks pretty satisfactory, especially the hand puppet used to play the newly-hatched Rodanlings, which is such a triumph compared to the amusingly terrible puppets that had thus far played Godzilla that it's almost hard to believe that just one year separated the films. The overall design mentality is excellent, too, updating the prehistoric pteranodon shape into something that feels a bit more monstrous and fantastic without seeming like it's outright impossible for something meant to exist in the real world as nature made it. The little dragon-like horns are an especially pleasing touch.

I lead off with Rodan not least because, in honesty, a good monster is all we really need in these films, especially the early ones where more was going on than just reshuffling various pre-established kaiju through vaguely new plots. But the lovely thing that I wasn't fully expecting (there won't be a better point to mention: this is the first Godzilla-free Toho daikaiju eiga I've ever seen. Perhaps that was unworthy of disclosure, but there it is), is that Rodan is, overall, a pretty strong piece of genre storytelling. It's nowhere near as rich and deep as the earlier Godzilla movies, please understand - the script by Kimura Takeshi and Murata Takeo, from a story by Kuronuma Ken, is totally devoid of the social commentary found in both of those films. This is a strict, by-the-books horror movie, in which a group of working joes end up getting walloped by the unexpected discovery of giant monsters (it's the kaiju film James Cameron would have made in the '80s), and do whatever they can to survive in the face of the unstoppable. But it's a very good version of that, aided vastly by having Honda Ishirō in the director's seat to make sure that, even if things weren't terribly serious, they'd be treated with gravity and respect, and it's not surprising, based on how much more impact Rodan has than Godzilla Raids Again that Honda would end up directing, basically, every single daikaiju eiga made at Toho over the next ten years.

What's really impressive is that, as with Godzilla, Honda is able to keep the film interesting even when his monsters aren't onscreen, and given that Rodan doesn't appear until substantially past the halfway point, this is a critical achievement. Some of the best parts of the movie, in fact, consist of nothing but watching miners hunting through the dark, looking for answers to questions they haven't been able to satisfactorily answer yet. The film isn't afraid to be dark and mysterious and suffocating, all great things for any story that takes place to such a great degree underground.

Rodan, in a nutshell, involves a search to find two men who went missing during a flooding accident in a new shaft, led by the plucky Kawamura Shigeru (Sawara Kenji), whose fiancée Kiyo (Shirakawa Yumi) is the sister of Goro, one of the missing men. Despite initial suspicions that human-sized foul play might be involved, it doesn't take too long to clear Goro's name, when a giant larva with hideous, lacerating claws crawls out of the mine's depths to wreak havoc on the surface. This is found to be an absurdly large dragonfly nymph, the juvenile stage of a long-extinct species, Meganulon, according to the very serious Professor Kashiwagi (Hirata Akihiko), and it's not the only ancient animal to be awakened by some combination of deep-earth drilling and nuclear testing (nukes are present in this film almost solely to fulfill the requirement that all '50s monster movies involve nukes). Shigeru encounters this other, much larger creature during a subsequent investigation of the mine, but in the process he receives a blow to the head that takes away his memory completely. Once the Something from the mine starts flying far in excess of the speed of sound and destroying planes and structures from the sheer force of its passage, it becomes extremely vital to unlock those memories, if there's going to be any hope of stopping the beast before it levels the city of Fukuoka. And after it levels Fukuoka, at least there's still a chance of stopping it before it levels anything else.

Pretty straightforward, altogether, and if Rodan has a fatal flaw, that's it: it is an entertaining, well-made monster movie with absolutely nothing on its mind. The human drama is of interest solely because the humans involved are intimately involved in the attempt to stop the Rodans, and there is not the remotest attempt made to flesh out the small mining town where the bulk of the action happens with particularly distinctive characters (I have named three actors so far in this review; that's already one more than the film is terribly keen on having). Insofar as it has a soul whatsoever, it's because Sawara is hugely likable and casual in the central role of Shigeru, making for a terribly pleasant everyman hero in the face of this gigantic menace.

But in Honda's hands, it ends up being vigorously satisfying, and far grimmer in its visual execution than the story would apparently have room for, which helps to keep it feeling like anything other than entertaining tosh. For all that the color cinematography is an obvious selling point, I'm not sure that it adds much, given how visceral black-and-white worked for Honda in Godzilla, but it does add to the sense of spectacle, and by all means, this is a spectacular movie, more than any daikaiju eiga before it. And it benefits immensely from its score, by the always-reliable Ifukube Akira; it is this man who does virtually all of the heavy lifting in the film's final scene, which is easily the single point at which Rodan breaks most decisively from its genre mates. At the risk of spoiling things a bit, when the Rodans are killed by the desperate gambit of the humans (which isn't the spoiler at all), the film suddenly switches sympathies and fully embraces the idea hidden inside every giant monster movie, which is that we like the giant monsters better than their victims. The death of the massive pteradons is outright tragic, in fact, and it's almost solely due to Ifukube's contribution that this works beautifully instead of seeming damnably hokey. It's also good for the movie as a whole, because even by 1956, the basic shape of "prehistoric creature revived by nukes destroys cities" was starting to reek of cliché, and it's primarily in the little bonuses like this one that entries in that subgenre were able to distinguish themselves. Rodan isn't a game-changer, but it's about as enjoyable as a '56 monster movie was ever going to be, and it breaks just enough rules to feel fresher than it has any actual reason to.