It was worth it. Ask any kid who grew up watching Fifties' monster movies. No matter how dull or expositional the plot got, and whether there was a romantic thread or not, the real star of the film was the creature. And it didn't matter if the warm-up acts tuned up and played a few songs before the star took the stage . . . and demolished everything.
That's the way it was with "Godzilla: King of the Monsters." For two thirds of the film you'd watch Raymond Burr play Perry Mason, standing in the background and observing crowds panic or scientists, politicians, and police debate, and then finally everyone would get out of the way so that Jurassic creature could toddle out of the water and destroy Tokyo.
If you've got a fondness for monster movies, this new DVD from Toho/Classic media is for you. But it's especially for those who appreciate Japanese filmmaking and this early example of anti-nuclear advocacy.
"Gojira" gives you the original 1954 Japanese masterpiece by Ishiro Honda, as well as the Terry Morse version that American kids saw: a 1956 release of the original that was shortened from 98 minutes to 80 minutes and recut adding footage of Burr throughout, using body doubles and trick editing. Watch them as a double feature and you'll see that the original stomps the stuffing out of the Americanized version.
Classic Media isn't touting this as a definitive version, but it certainly feels like one. The transfer is as good as it gets, considering the poor quality of the original source materials (some of the scenes incorporated 16mm stock WWII military shots!) and the treatment is almost scholarly. Film experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski offer full-length commentaries for each version that are pretty extraordinary in their scope and depth. They've done an incredible amount of research, and it shows. Plus, there's zero dead air, nothing self-serving, and no nervous chatter except for one "Brokeback Mountain" reference. Everything they have to say seems substantial. They point out body doubles in the Americanized version, talk about the film's reputation and whether it's deserved or not, address Burr's involvement and the story of how "Gojira" came to be Americanized, address controversies, point out factual inaccuracies in the films, and comment on differences between the two versions and how it effects the underlying theme of the movie: peace!
I'm sure that I would have spent plenty of time in the lobby waiting in the popcorn line had the original film played in movie houses, but as an adult I found the original "Gojira" fascinating for its somber tone, its noir-like staging and lighting, its many references to nuclear testing (which were dropped in the American version), and, perhaps most of all, the way that humanity was showcased before the monster—a metaphor for nuclear holocaust—destroys everything. As an adult, it's also easy to see parallels between this film and the original "King Kong" and the first mutant monster movie, "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." But the thing that really struck me this time around was how the original "Gojira" was more subtle, even poetic.
In the Japanese version, "Godzilla" isn't clearly a mutant monster. Some of the islanders of Odo think he's an ancient mythical beast that's been awakened, so there's that ambiguity. For another thing, "Gojira" could have been awfully anti-American, but instead the filmmakers concentrated on making a strong anti-war and anti-nuclear testing and proliferation statement. "Godzilla" may symbolize the nuclear test the U.S. conducted near Bimini that affected a Japanese tuna boat, and his atomic breath and glowing dorsal plates may be atomic power personified, but the film also offers balance. The Japanese scientist who will eventually descend into the ocean with his "oxygen destroyer" to defeat Godzilla is also a metaphor for the moral dilemma facing scientists who create devices that can be used by the military-industrialist complex.
"If the oxygen destroyer is used even once," the professor says in his big monologue, "politicians from around the world will see it. Of course, they'll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs vs. bombs, missiles vs. missiles, and now a new super weapon to throw upon us all!! As a scientist, no, as a human being, I can't allow that to happen." Yet, he's persuaded to use it to end the destruction brought about by Godzilla . . . which is certainly similar to the logic the U.S. used in deciding to drop the A-Bomb. By doing so, the reasoning went, they were saving lives by shortening the war. Maybe. But there's still an awful lot of killing, and that's just what worried Dr. Serizawa (Akihito Hirata).
Because of the heavy anti-nuclear weapon and anti-war message of the original, and because of the noir treatment, "Gojira" feels a lot like a cross between "Dr. Strangelove" and "King Kong." It's a fascinating film.
Performance-wise, there's nothing to write home about, except for Takashi Shimura's portrayal of the wise Dr. Yamane. His acting and expressiveness is far superior to the rest of the cast. It's not that Momoko Kochi as Dr. Yamane's daughter, or Akira Takarada as Ogata, the young man who falls in love with her, are bad. It's just that the depth of Yamane's acting is so great that the other performances seem uninspired by comparison. Some of the special effects created by Japan's legendary master, Eji Tsuburaya, have the same sort of quaint charm now that Ray Harryhausen's effects have, but there's also a technical proficiency that keeps the story moving believably forward without distraction. Add a mournful musical score and that noir lighting and you've got a monster film that's surprisingly poetic.
Video: There are plenty of minor dust flickers and some vertical lines caused by apparent scratches on the source master, but they're easily ignored and the transfer itself is very good. In fact, it's as sharp a picture of this classic monster film that I've seen. Both films are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (we're told that one was briefly shown in Cinemascope in the theaters, which resulted in lopped off or cropped heads), and the black-and-white contrast on both is excellent.
Audio: The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital Mono, and it's sufficient to drive the dialogue. There's a flatness to some of the scenes on the American version, especially on the bass tones, but overall the quality is decent. The Japanese version has English subtitles.
Extras: Aside from the full American version, which gives you both Godzilla films to watch, the two commentaries are the real gems on this two-disc set. They're housed in a handsome book-style case with 12-page booklet that offers pictures along with an essay by Steve Ryfle on "Godzilla's Footprint." Chapter titles for scene selections (24 for "Gojira," nine for "Godzilla: Kong of the Monsters") are also included.
The other extras are original movie trailers and two short features: "The Making of the Godzilla Suit" and "Godzilla: Story Development." Both of them contain some nice shots of original storyboards and behind-the-scenes photographic stills, along with plenty of background information—crammed, actually, into very brief features.
Bottom Line: This edition of "Gojira" and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" is truly a collector's edition, jam-packed with history and almost as much heart as the original film. It's a must-own for fans of Fifties' monster movies and classical Japanese films. I'd give the original "Gojira" an 8 and the Americanized version a 6, which averages out to a 7. But it's a neat package.