Born in Godzilla‘s shadow, 1956’s Rodan rises from a carbonaceous nest as a loud indictment of human greed and the waning economic power of Japan’s coal mining industry. Ishiro Honda’s film spends much of its running time in the coalfields of Kyushu, embedding a working-class tone and suggestion of ecocide into a kaiju story that rivals the power of its atomic predecessor.
Set in the coal town of Kitamatsu, Rodan opens with miners dealing with the flooding collapse of an unsafe tunnel stretching deep into mountainous coal seams. The collapse and following monstrous deaths reveal a fantastic cavern replete with cattle-size bugs and the eponymous Rodan, who rises from the collapsing earth to wreak havoc on cities around Asia. Honda’s film succinctly captures the perils of life in the coalfields and the lingering harm done by every new coal mine.
Coal, the once-dominant fuel of Japanese industry, found itself in the post-war years increasingly undercut by imported petroleum. To meet factories’ needs for ever-larger amounts of fuel, coal exploiters and industrialists across Japan’s island of Kyushu pressured miners to produce more. Coal mining’s dangers were ever-present and loomed over pits and Japanese history. Between cave-ins, floods, and explosions, the work of coal mining was always deadly. Calamities portrayed by Honda echoed centuries of disasters across Japan’s coalfields. Four decades before Rodan‘s fictional mine collapse, in December 1914, a methane explosion at the Hōjōcoalmine killed 687 workers. For every passing decade, hundreds more miners would perish in accidents, leading up to the second most grim day in Japan’s coal mining history.
Rodan’s fictional mine was based on the real Miike Coal Mine near Nagasaki. With a checkered history of the begrudging improvement of mine safety, and relying on prison labor until 1930, Miike was productive hell for miners. According to Yoshiro Hoshino and Nobuko Iijima in Industrial Pollution in Japan, by the late 1950s Miike miners were averaging 14 tons of coal per person, and within five years, miners averaged 44 tons per worker. Safety concessions by colliery owners came after miners coalesced on better working conditions. However, over time mine safety and cleaning were reduced, leading to the afternoon of November 9, 1963 when Miike’s miners’ already dangerous workday ended in disaster. Methane gas and heavy layers of coal dust erupted in a series of sympathetic explosions that buckled the coal mine, killing 458 workers and poisoning over 800 through carbon monoxide exposure. Rodan, filmed nine years before the Miike disaster, captures the daily grinding dangers to humans who inched ever deeper into the earth. But it was the earth of Japan which bore the scars most profound in Honda’s movie.
The Japanese countryside in Rodan is reduced to craters and fissures when human greed extends too deep into the earth. Eventually, the prehistoric Rodan would emerge and hasten the collapse of land, but throughout Japan mines were already creating a dangerous landscape. As Conrad Totman wrote in Japan: An Environmental History, the problem of subsidence was found throughout Japan’s coal regions and is played upon by Honda. In Rodan, the ground gives way initially as a by-product of miners digging into unstable layers of earth. The subterranean flooding and collapse of tunnels kill, as well as open up caves lost for epochs, eventually reviving the dormant Rodan (while the American version of Rodan suggests nuclear tests jolt the earth and awaken Rodan). However, it is a coal miners story that explodes into a kaiju tale. Rodan‘s landscape is scarred by mines, undulating hills suggesting centuries of digging, which reshaped the country. As the film opens, Honda’s camera pans across the sprawling mine, its glooms of grays and blacks cover an industrial landscape of ribbons of coal carts and undulating mountains of coal and spoil. This land evokes awe, not for its beauty but ugliness.
Coal’s impact on the land was well known into the 20th century, as Totman wrote “sometimes abruptly, surface areas would crumble and settle, ruining topsoil and field layouts, sometimes enabling polluted water to rise and poison the fields.” As far back as the late 19th century, land subsidence drew community protests impacted by the coal mines reaching ever deeper into the earth, particularly those stretching into the seabed beneath Nagasaki Bay. In the Takashima coal region, residents tried to have a nearby mine shut down in 1882 because of “land subsidence, tilting of houses, drying up of water sources and decline of fishing catches,” Totman detailed. Mining in Japan during the 20th century saw hundreds of acres of agricultural fields and paddies lost to production, houses collapsing, with lakes, rivers, and wells disappearing, all tied to the undermining work of mining. Even after Japan’s mining peak, related building collapse, subsidence, and farmland degradation continued in the hundreds into the 1980s.
As Rodan nears climax, the coal mines are left behind, and the battle is initially taken to the sky. Here, Rodan mocks humankind. Jet-age creations chase the flying beast but cannot keep up nor follow. And when they do attempt aerial combat, Rodan effortlessly evades, outmaneuvers, and destroys the pride of the American and Japanese weapons industry. Rodan is a formidable natural opponent in the air and on the ground. When targeting Asian cities, the massive flying beast levels them with supersonic flapping wings. Thousands die in Rodan’s rampage, and there is grief felt for the multitudes lost, but what the film demonstrates is the barbarity of indiscriminate attacks on people or nature by humans and monsters. Rodan’s dominance leads humans to devise a plan with devastating finality, a practice civilization has known for a millennium — scorched earth. Humankind in Rodan resort to a form of ecocide where resources or locations utilized by an enemy are destroyed. Burning crops or defoliating forests are just two methods used throughout warfare’s long history. In Rodan, there is a more profound perversion to this technique, not only denying the landscape to Rodan (its home in the coal-adjacent caves) but Japan’s nascent Self Defense Forces crush and pulverize the earth, so vigorously it awakens a slumbering volcano.
From the plundered coal mines to the withering bombardment of the countryside, the landscape of Japan is continually gouged, beaten, and remade. Initially, mining collapses revive Rodan, but it is a military bombardment that fully wrenches the landscape into ruin. Humanity’s continual attack and harm of the earth leads to the kaiju’s demise. At Rodan’s climax, the viewer and characters realize that for humans, ecocide is in our nature.
In Part II, we will return with Ishiro Honda to the coalfields of Japan and see how corruption and pollution intersect in 1964’s Dogora.