Tuesday, September 12, 2006

GOJIRA / GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS

Classic Media has done a great service for fans of kaiju eiga and, specifically the Big G, with their release of the original, uncut, Japanese version of GOJIRA (1954), paired in an attractive new DVD package with the American version, known as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956).

American nuclear testing creates a towering prehistoric monster with radioactive breath, which heads straight for Tokyo, leaving devastation in its wake. Japan’s only hope of defeating the creature lies in the Oxygen Destroyer a weapon as potentially deadly as the A-bomb itself. Can Dr. Serizawa, the Destroyer’s inventor, be persuaded to use the weapon before it’s too late?

Directed by IshirĂ´ Honda, GOJIRA is a dark, occasionally moving, anti-nuclear allegory with powerful performances by a top-flight Japanese cast. The script is excellently constructed, never losing sight of the human stories that might easily have been lost in the devastating spectacle of the primeval giant’s fury. Played utterly straight and with complete sincerity, the film – while derivative of American efforts like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS – has an emotional weight unique in the genre. Only the Japanese have suffered the consequences of a nuclear attack, and the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were still very vivid in 1954. The scenes showing the wounded victims of the creature’s first Tokyo attack, lying en masse on hospital floors as they slowly die from radiation poisoning, have a verisimilitude that could only have come from real-life experience.

The U.S. version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, is a pretty effective creature feature in its own right, but much of the human suffering and character drama has been cut out, replaced with new footage of actor Raymond Burr, playing an American journalist on the scene. Although the structure of the movies is quite different, played out mostly in flashback, the movie is still quite grim. Burr’s scenes are really quite expertly integrated into the Japanese footage, with excellent use of body doubles and carefully matched sets and lighting. Burr, too, deserves credit for playing the role very straight, describing the devastation his character witnesses with credible conviction.

Classic Media presents GOJIRA for the first time on American home video in fine form. Although the print – direct from the vaults of Toho Studios – shows considerable wear and damage, due to the inferior stock used, the transfer is as fine as modern technology could make it. There are still scratches and specks riddled throughout, but the image is mostly sharp, with solid blacks and good contrast. The movie also uses lots of stock footage of the military, and when that film appears, it is noticeably inferior to the rest of the footage. Overall, though, the transfer is excellent for a movie of this vintage. The print of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, is okay, but looks about the same as it has on every previous domestic video presentation: slightly washed out and grainy.

GOJIRA includes clear English subtitles accompanying the original mono audio soundtrack, while GODZILLA keeps its familiar English mono tracks. Both films include informative, detailed audio commentaries by Godzilla scholars Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, and there are two featurettes, one focusing on the development of the original film story, the other on the film’s elaborate special effects.

The two films come in a classy, attractively designed "hardback" clamshell, and the package includes a 16-page booklet with extensive liner notes.

For fans of kaiju films or serious students of science fiction cinema, Classic Media’s GOJIRA/GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may be the most important DVD release of the year. And if that’s not enough to be grateful for, they’ve announced similar editions of other Godzilla and vintage Toho kaiju films in the months to come.

Highly recommended.

BUY: Gojira / Godzilla Deluxe Collector's Edition (Gojira/Godzilla [1954] / Godzilla, King of the Monsters [1956])