The history of Japanese monster films in America is a strange, sometimes baffling, and even frustrating tale of alternate versions, deleted scenes, added actors, silly dubbing, and even political motivation. Fans of the genre have spent years discussing and debating the merits and flaws of these altered cuts, and in a world where, in most cases, the Japanese versions of these films are readily available in the West, dismissing the oldest of these “Americanized” versions is becoming far easier. After all, with the subtitled versions of these movies ready to pop into our (Region 1!) DVD players or stream online at our leisure, why watch the highly edited, ludicrously dubbed US cuts of movies like Godzilla, Mothra, or Rodan?
Well, I must confess, I’ve never felt this way. Like so many of my fellow kaiju enthusiasts, I first discovered nearly all of the genre’s output thanks to those “highly edited, ludicrously dubbed US cuts.” While it’s hard to argue against the fact that the Japanese versions of these films are the objectively superior versions, doing so at the expense of honoring the versions that made me a fan is something I’m incapable of doing. Sure, they might be silly. They might feature alterations that make little to no sense. They might be incompetently edited or unnecessarily re-scored, or feature new actors shoehorned into their plots. But for their place in my personal history with the genre – and for their place in the overall history of bringing these films to America – I simply can’t not love them.
In addition to the obvious nostalgia at play, it’s also worth mentioning that not every aspect of the dubbed versions are complete train wrecks. Indeed, depending on the film in question, there can be plenty of legitimate competence to enjoy. An obvious example of this is 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which features a wonderfully literate script and a memorable performance by actor Raymond Burr. The US cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, as goofy as it is, features some great dialogue and competent editing. The AIP dubs for films like Mothra vs. Godzilla and Destroy All Monsters (courtesy of the legendary Titra Studios) are some of the best dubs for any Japanese film you’ll ever hear, with believable performances and well-written dialogue.
This brings us to the true subject of this discussion: a little movie you may have heard of named Rodan. First released in Japan in 1956, the film (Toho’s first monster picture in color) reunited much of the team behind the original Godzilla to tell the tale of a besieged mining town, man-eating bugs, and two giant flying reptiles hell bent on tearing down Japanese infrastructure. The story featured a unique structure, with the first half the film focusing on the threat of the Meganulon hordes, and the second half introducing the real threat in the form of the Rodans. Combined with Eiji Tsuburaya’s unforgettable special effects, legitimately chilling direction from Ishiro Honda, and a memorable musical score from Akira Ifukube, Rodan became an instant monster classic in its home country.
When the film made its inevitable trek across the Pacific, much was changed before US audiences saw it in theaters. While spared the more in-depth alterations that had been made to Godzilla (and would soon be made to films like Varan), various aspects of the production were shifted, deleted, or re-contextualized. Music cues were swapped, scenes changed places, subplots were altered or removed, and some of the fleeing hordes of panicked citizens suddenly sounded suspiciously like George Takei.
However, the biggest change made to the film was the addition of narration from the main character Shigeru. In the Japanese version, Shigeru (played by the great Kenji Sahara in his first tokusatsu/kaiju leading role) may have been our eyes and ears into the plot, but for the most part, he kept his mouth shut. This couldn’t be farther from the case in the US version, which features a pervasive narration from the character, courtesy of the legendary Keye Luke. In 1959, Luke performed in much the same capacity in the US version of Godzilla Raids Again, known in the States as Gigantis the Fire Monster. In that film, Luke’s narration was less a guide through the story from the perspective of a protagonist, and more a precursor to modern descriptive audio tracks that describe the visuals for audiences with vision problems. To put it bluntly, the guy doesn’t shut up.
But Rodan’s narration was different. While there are moments where it goes on perhaps longer than it should, it doesn’t pervade the entire runtime of the film. What’s more, it’s (for the most part) competently written. While Gigantis’ narration made it seem as though the writers questioned the ability of the viewer to actually view the film, the narration in Rodan is used to effectively build an atmosphere of dread and despair, particularly in scenes set in the mine. Better still, it allows us a look into the mind of Shigeru, a character I’ve been fascinated with since my early days as a monster movie fan. Through Sahara’s performance and the direction of Ishiro Honda, we understand the almost supernatural sense of terror Shigeru experiences throughout the film. The big scene in which Shigeru witnesses the birth of Rodan is a particularly powerful moment, and one of the most legitimately horrifying moments in a kaiju film. What must it have been like, in that moment, for a mere mortal man to witness something so intensely enervating, sickening, and cosmically humbling?
That, dear readers, is what this short story attempts to answer.
In keeping with the GODZILLA NOVELIZATION PROJECT’s tradition of crafting short stories and novellas as “in-universe artifacts”, I decided to branch out from the immediate Godzilla series and add a unique adaptation of Rodan to the project’s list of stories. Much in the same way The Steve Martin Report told its story from the perspective of Burr’s legendary character by interweaving new dialogue with the classic narration from the film, this retelling of Rodan is written as if from the perspective of Shigeru himself. Utilizing selected bits of Keye Luke’s narration from the US version and melding them with a story more in keeping with the original Japanese cut, I imagined a slightly older Shigeru – happily married to his sweetheart Kiyo but still haunted by the events of his past – committing his memories to paper. Not quite a journal, not quite a memoir, but nevertheless a collection of writings that told the complete story of his encounters with the Meganulon and the Rodans.
As a fan of character studies, this was a chance to get into the mind of a man who saw something so horrific that it nearly cost him his memories. The sight of Rodan snacking on the Meganulon like potato chips nearly drove poor Shigeru insane, and the idea of putting that feeling of fear and smallness down into words was incredibly exciting. Intense, but exciting!
In the end, while the main goal of the GNP has always been (and continues to be) honoring the spirit and intent of the original Japanese versions of these films, short stories like the one you are about to read (and hopefully enjoy!) are a great way to highlight the things I feel were done well in the American versions we grew up with. While they may no longer be the essential versions they once were to US fans, to completely forget them – along with their accomplishments and nostalgic value to so many kaiju lovers – would be a true shame.
And so, it is to those fans – the ones who were first introduced to Rodan through its English version via theaters, TV screens, and old VHS tapes – that I dedicate this adaptation. I dearly hope that I’ve done both cuts of this monster masterpiece justice, and reminded you of why both versions are still deserving of love.
-(Ro)Daniel DiManna (lover of wacky dubs and giant Pteranodons)