From the Toho Master Collection (the folks that brought you all those nice, digi-pack enfolded Godzilla movies) comes the next offering, a similarly tasty two-fer starring Rodan and the Gargantuas. Coming in the same stylish book-like digi-pack foldout, we get mostly the same treatment, with two movies (both the Japanese and English-dubbed release versions) on each disc. Menu screens seem slightly less exciting than on the previous Godzilla movies, and extras are limited to one hour-long documentary, but by and large this is a two-pack any monster lover would be proud to own.
At times graceful, titanic, horrifying and namby-pamby, Rodan is both more and less than what I remember from Saturday afternoons in the '70s. Every bit as dour and serious as the original Godzilla, Rodan actually packs two monster movies in one, but waits until the last half-hour to really let the big bird fly. Tense and terrifying opening scenes segue into plenty of talk-talk and nerdy sexual tension - stuff seemingly calculated to let minds wander - before gigantic wind shear blows everything towards an oddly maudlin and out-of-place conclusion.
Opening in a coal-mining village between the volcano Mt. Aso and the city of Kyushu, Rodan immediately unfolds the tension as miners go missing in a mysterious flooding accident. Logic flies right out the window, of course. "We don't know what happened or where the miners are," they say. "Let's find the source of the water," is the directive. "Is it safe?" they ask. "Yes," is the reply. OK ... at least creepy scenes of men skulking through dimly-lit, flooded mine shafts never fail to chill. When bloodied bodies and huge insectoid larvae turn up to terrorize everyone, it's pretty much on. Employing scale better than any other monster movie ever, it turns out the giant larvae are just snacks for a baby Rodan, whose mom has a wingspan of about 300 feet! More sobering even than the ultimate source of these beasts (nuclear tests) is the speculation that global warming might be the culprit. Have we known about this that long?
But before our winged wonders get to blow everyone away with some of the most unique destruction in kaiju history there's lots of tepid detective work from a bunch of really skinny guys in glasses. Fuzzy photographs and chaste love affairs conveniently point toward a prehistoric answer, and finally the fun starts. Somehow, the surprisingly graphic (for the time and genre) mayhem and creepy bugs of the beginning render Rodan's destructive reign and unwieldy man-in-suit flight scenes less joyously crunchy and more poetically visual. I guess it's toward this end that, despite the fact that Rodan and friend do plenty of killing, the bulky birdies seem more regal and noble than anything else.
Rodan returned to fight alongside Godzilla on other occasions, but this first outing represents his best work. Ishiro Honda's direction effectively romanticizes rural Japanese life before cutting it up with huge bugs and blowing it down under awesome wings. Skinny guys in big glasses and ties and girls that cry over Rodan's protracted fate cut into the fun a little bit, but as giant monster movies go, Rodan soars above most of the crowd.
War Of The Gargantuas:
Any Susie Cupcake that doesn't know the phrase Kaiju Eiga probably won't recognize the name Gargantua either, but for those who'd just as soon have Godzilla officiate at their wedding, the Gargantuas might hold a special place. Obviously the Gargantuas never made the franchise cut like big G, even though they're part of a weird sequel of sorts to an even weirder Toho movie, Frankenstein Conquers The World, in which scientists raise a 'Frankenstein' from cuddly, blockheaded adolescence to gigantic, building-smashing proportions.
Amble on down the road to find the Frankenstein (now named Sanda, covered with fur and topping about 200 feet) has passed on to urban legend, until his cellular regenerate brother green Gailah emerges from the sea to start munching on people like popcorn shrimp. Japan's military might is once again put to the test, as Gailah starts making midnight raids on the refrigerator known as Tokyo. But when Sanda reappears to mess with the mix, his one-time father figure (played with slack, C-list matinee indifference by American Russ Tamblyn) must do what he can to at least keep his own beloved Gagantua off of a titanic slab.
Kaiju (giant monster) movies were never long on plot. Before they became fun for the kids the main thrust was the subtext - mess with the atom and we'll all get smashed - but the point was mostly for monsters to crush stuff and maybe to put a little scare into the viewer. Though not a favorite of most, for my money War Of The Gargantuas comports itself admirably, (save some soft spots in the middle) even providing a few chills for the weak-at-heart. Let's forget about the humans; even through dubbing and subtitles Tamblyn's character is lame and his performance pathetic. Though he displays more interest in his comely student Akemi than in big old Sanda, he seems oddly lethargic when it comes to doing little things like saving her life. He'll look around perplexed for a bit, say something stupid like "hold on for a moment while I try to save you," and generally just struggle to raise one eyebrow, as if thinking to himself through a valium haze, "if I were only just a little more handsome I'd be acting in something else."
What makes War Of The Gargantuas special are the creatures themselves. No dudes weighed down under 100 pounds of rubber, these monsters are ugly, agile and very humanoid. Weird guys like Gigan are nice, but when you see what is essentially a humongous man dunking a huge trawler or crushing a building with his brother's head it's somehow much easier to suspend disbelief. And they're scary, too. Gailah in particular, once rising menacingly up from the depths, is the stuff of nightmares. And he eats people! When was the last time you saw that in a Toho movie? Nighttime atmospherics, (our huge friends are afraid of the light) foggy mountainsides and other unusual Toho scenarios make all the stomping that much more convincing and delightful. A ridiculous ending and Gargantua Gailah's incessant habit of screeching 'chert, chert, cherrrrrrrt!' eventually test even sturdy nerves, but War Of The Gargantuas nevertheless represents a gritty, creepy, excellent side trip in the Toho canon.
From 1956, Rodan makes its way onto this DVD in its original fullscreen 1.33:1 ratio. Fairly rich colors, inky blacks and a nice sharp transfer, with only a little bit of film damage here and there, will please kaiju fans. Rodan is free from almost all compression artifacts and problems other than during a few scenes (mostly set in a volcano) where heavy use of digital noise reduction makes different sections of the image appear to move independently of each other. Aside from that annoyance Rodan looks rather nice.
War Of The Gargantuas
Comes in a good old TohoScope 2.35:1 ratio presentation. While looking much better than what I remember watching on Monster Theater (KATU, dateline: 1978) some problems with the transfer trouble me. Probably due to having two versions on one disc, plenty of aliasing crops up, and heavy application of digital noise reduction makes lots of scenes - especially nighttime ones and parts where there is lots of camera movement - suffer the watery warbles the same as scenes from Rodan. It's a real shame, since there are plenty of nice and unique bits of camera work to be enjoyed. Posterizing is also noticeable at times. Otherwise, the picture is generally clear and sharp enough, while colors are fairly robust. I'll take this over nothing, or a worn-out VHS, but it could have been more solid.
Both movies come either dubbed in English or in Japanese with English subtitles (the preferred viewing choice for the discerning monster fan - but watch them both for fun, or in English when you want to concentrate on the destruction). Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio works fine for both films, too. Dialog is mixed well, though on War Of The Gargantuas things tend to get lost under the incessant screaming of the Green Gargantua. No real distortion problems are to be found, and each movie has a classic score - the Gargantua score is pretty adventurous, too - that fits in well.
Both movies come with their English Dubbed Versions which are fun for comparing and contrasting. Rodan's dubbed version is about ten minutes shorter (72 minutes versus 82) yet has a stock footage intro added on. The print has a lot more film damage, is not as clear and sometimes darker, though colors pop a bit more. War Of The Gargantuas is about the same in length in its dubbed version, and though it seems to fight compression by sporting a wavering image at times, the print is brighter, lighter and colors are also more vibrant (film damage is more prevalent, however). Plus, we get to see the bloody clothes of the cleaning lady that Gailah spits out, a bit of shocking grue kept hidden from Japanese eyes. On the Japanese versions English Subtitles are removable. Finally, Bringing Godzilla Down To Size, the feature-length Documentary, at 69 minutes gives a pretty thorough and entertaining look at special effects and acting like Godzilla, from Godzilla godfather Eiji Tsuburaya's birth in 1901 through to 21st century big G antics. Interviews with all the (living) key players and modern-day movie-makers combine with clips, stills, behind-the-scenes stuff and fun talks with the men who play Godzilla as they explain their acting ethos and challenges.
Rodan's nifty bug horror mutates into a semi-cerebral take on the giant monster motif, with mixed but always entertaining results. War Of The Gargantuas goes further afield from Godzilla standard operating procedure for a rough and tumble slugfest full of atmosphere and peril not usually felt in the kaiju arena. Too bad Russ Tamblyn had to be around for the party. Compression problems represent a real disappointment, but they don't overshadow either movie's fun, and these are likely the best-looking versions of either film on DVD to date. The inclusion of a fun and satisfying documentary makes this two-disc set Recommended overall for fans of monsters kicking over buildings.
- Kurt Dahlke
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