After Godzilla (known as Gojira in his native Japan) had starred in two enormously successful movies — 1954’s original Gojira (released in the U.S. two years later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) and 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again — Toho Studios was interested in producing more giant monster movies based around new creatures.
Writer Ken Kuronuma (real name Soda Michio) was tasked with coming up with a screenplay about a winged beast. He combined both the idea of a still-living prehistoric animal (in this case a member of the Pteranodon family), awakened like Godzilla by nuclear testing, with a story he had heard about a Kentucky Air National Guard pilot who was killed as he pursued a UFO in his plane.
The result was Rodan (original Japanese title, Giant Monster from the Sky, Radon), released in 1956 in Japan and in 1957 in the U.S. as Rodan! The Flying Monster! It was the third major kaiju film of Toho’s initial run, and the first to be made in color. While Godzilla Raids Again had introduced an enemy for the big green lizard in the form of Anguirus, Rodan would become both friend and foe to Godzilla in a series of films that would often have them battling each other before teaming up to defeat a common enemy.
The Showa Era (1956-1975)
Rodan’s first film was, curiously enough, the monster’s only solo outing to date. While Mothra has starred in both Godzilla team-ups and her own series of movies, Rodan has never had that opportunity beyond its 1956 debut, playing second fiddle to Godzilla or making brief cameos via stock footage in around a dozen other pictures over the years.
Directed by Godzilla helmer Ishiro Honda, Rodan suggests that the 200-million-year-old massive flying reptile was awakened by mining operations and, like Godzilla before him, possibly nuclear testing. Rodan does not explicitly tie its creatures to the nuclear holocausts unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the way that Godzilla did, which makes the film less haunting but still enjoyable.
Rodan also introduced a swarm of smaller, dragonfly-like monsters called Meganulon, who are taken out when Rodan chows down on them, but would resurface in 2000’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus. The most interesting aspect of the story is that there are revealed to be two Rodans, one male and one female, with the implication that they are mates. Although they are depicted as dangerous, hostile creatures, the ending of the film is unexpectedly moving: unable or unwilling to live without its partner, the second Rodan allows itself to perish in an erupting volcano with its injured companion.
Rodan re-emerged, with a somewhat different take on its personality, in 1964’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, although it’s unclear whether this was one of the original creatures who survived or a third one. A snarkier version of the winged monster emerged in this movie, who pokes fun at Godzilla after he is ensnared in Mothra’s webbing and who is initially reluctant to help the other two monsters fight Ghidorah because he essentially couldn’t care less whether the human race lives or dies (this is all translated from the kaiju’s “conversation” in the film by Mothra’s tiny fairy companions, the Shobijin).
Seeing the brave Mothra go it alone against the three-headed dragon, in the face of almost certainly fatal odds, gives Rodan a change of heart and he decides to join his nemesis Godzilla on the field of battle against Ghidorah, eventually defeating the monster and sending him back to space.
The hard-won peace was short-lived, however, as 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster saw Godzilla and Road transported to Planet X by an alien race, where they fight Ghidorah before having their minds controlled by the malevolent Xiliens. Sent back to Earth to destroy it, our two heroic monsters finally get snapped out of the alien control and once again defeat Ghidorah.
Rodan’s last meaningful appearance in a Toho kaiju film came in 1968’s classic ensemble film (the Avengers of its time!) Destroy All Monsters!, which once again saw all of Earth’s giant beasts — now living peacefully on an island called Monsterland — come under the control of the alien Kilaaks. Each monster is sent to level a different major city, with Rodan assigned to Moscow, but eventually the monsters come back to their senses and have to again battle the Kilaaks’ two ultimate weapons, King Ghidorah and one of their own ships disguised as a “Fire Dragon.”
The Heisei Era (1984-1995)
After the kaiju returned to Monsterland at the end of Destroy All Monsters!, Rodan only made quick cameos — via stock footage — in three more films in the original Showa era: Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). He was re-introduced in the Heisei period of films in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2, where he underwent the first significant redesign in his history. Although he had first been conceived as being around the same size as Godzilla, the new Rodan was considerably smaller, with a wider beak and sharper facial features. He did retain his strength, ability to generate shock waves with his wings and his speed.
Rodan plays a major role in the film as he strives to protect his “brother” — a baby Godzilla whose egg was left in Rodan’s vast nest (it’s determined that Godzillas leave their eggs in other creatures’ nests). The winged beast first fights Godzilla and is seemingly defeated, but re-emerges as Fire Rodan, revitalized by the Big G’s radiation and given a nifty energy beam of his own — a Uranium Heat Beam. Fire Rodan battles Mechagodzilla (used by the humans against the monsters) relentlessly and is eventually overcome — but not before transferring his life energy to a gravely wounded Godzilla, sacrificing himself so that the giant lizard can survive and protect the baby monster.
The Millennium Era (1999-2004)
It would be another 11 years before we saw Rodan again, this time in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, where he made his first official appearance in the third series of Godzilla films, known as the Millennium Era. Godzilla: Final Wars was released to mark the 50th anniversary of the Godzilla franchise, acting as a sort of massive reunion that involved Rodan, Anguirus, Gigan, Kumonga, King Caesar, Ebirah, Hedorah, Zilla (a sly reference to the American Godzilla of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film) and a super-powered mutant version of Ghidorah, not to mention the Xiliens and the Shobijin. Rodan lays waste to New York City in the film before being dispatched by the Xiliens as part of a plot to conquer humankind.
That was Rodan’s last live-action film appearance until now, although he showed up in the Japanese TV series Godzilla Island (1997) and has also been deployed in a slew of video games, comics and children’s books over the years (he also was briefly used as an embodiment of It in Stephen King’s 1987 novel, where the title creature takes the form of many monsters out of pop culture).
Now, as we know, the flying monster has been revived and rebranded as one of the ancient race of Titans in Godzilla: King of the Monsters — the first time an official Toho monster has appeared in a non-Japanese kaiju film. Although the origin story in the film may be revised from his original background, the Rodan in the new film is very much in the monster’s traditional mode, a cranky, not especially friendly creature whose loyalties are enigmatic and shifting. With the pteranodon being one of Godzilla’s longest-serving and best-known frenemies, it’s nice to see Rodan flying again.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye