It's Gojira vs. Godzilla—with Appellate Judge James A. Stewart as referee—when these two nuclear-powered titans of the deep battle to the death! Actually, they're the same beast, with some subtle differences.
"All they think about is trying to kill Godzilla. Why can't they study him from a radiological perspective? It's a unique opportunity."
Even if you haven't seen the original Gojira, it's no secret that Godzilla, as he's called here in the States, is the prehistoric monster that never dies. The series might have been wrapped up by Toho Films in 2005 with Godzilla: Final Wars, but you know the big fella is out there somewhere off Tokyo Harbor waiting for his comeback opportunity.
This two-disc release, which presents the Japanese Gojira and the Americanized Godzilla together, provides a unique opportunity to study him from a cinematic perspective.
The big guy's movie career began with an idea that Toho executive Tomuyuki Tanaka came up with while gazing at the sea from an airplane, according to the booklet accompanying this set. A tuna trawler named The Lucky Dragon No. 5 had recently been in the wrong place at the wrong time: near the Marshall Islands during an H-bomb test. Its crew soon died of leukemia. This 1954 news story and the subsequent protests sparked Tanaka's idea for what would be the first of many rubber-suit monster movies made in Japan.
The man who made Gojira into a living atomic bomb, at least symbolically, was director Ishiro Honda (All Monsters Attack), who had seen the devastation of Hiroshima when returning after eight years in the Japanese army. "Most of the visual images I got were from my war experience," he says in the booklet. "I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla." They also used the characteristics of several breeds of dinosaur with a few changes, as if the monster himself were disfigured by the atomic blast, as the featurettes note.
The two men—along with Eiji Tsuburaya, who built the rubber Godzilla suit—created one of Japan's top ten films of 1954, one that spawned numerous sequels. When the movie came to the United States in 1956, footage featuring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) as an American reporter covering the monster attacks was added to give it mass-market appeal. This recut version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, took in $2 million and helped make the monster into an international movie star. The original Gojira didn't resurface until 2004, when the original movie turned 50. While the recut version didn't pass muster with critics in 1956, the original fared better.
Gojira: The Original Japanese Masterpiece presents both versions of the film that started it all in historical context with commentaries and supplementary material.
Facts of the Case
The modesty of the filmmakers' aims is seen in the opening credits—or implied by what is not seen, since the Toho logo doesn't include the word "Toho" in English at this time, as it surely would have if they'd expected a global monster hit. The growls of the monster underneath the rolling opening credits are an effective teaser that sets the stage for what we're about to see.
The film opens on the wake of a boat, showing the boat itself as it's buffeted by a blast. Three survivors found by a fishing boat say "The ocean just blew up." When another survivor washes up, he says, "He did it…A monster." An old man in the crowd utters the monster's name—"Gojira" (at least that's what he says; the subtitles read "Godzilla").
"It will come from the ocean to feed on humankind to survive," the old man says. The crowd doesn't seem to be taking him seriously, but they perform an exorcism ceremony just in case.
Soon the monster attacks, leaving a trail of radioactivity behind him. Ancient trilobites found in his footprints and Jurassic-era sediment shaken from his body suggest an ancient origin. At a conference to discuss the beast, an official wants to keep the attack quiet to avoid public panic, but a near-riot in the conference room suggests his efforts will be futile.
Professor Yamane wants to study the monster alive, even though everyone else wants Gojira dead. His assistant Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, The War in Space), has a means of destroying the monster but fears that the weapon could fall into the wrong hands. Even as the monster tramples Tokyo, Serizawa shares the secret of his weapon only with his beloved Emiko, the daughter of Yamane. The secret could leak out, though, since she loves Ogata.
Enter Raymond Burr. How do you work a major character into a pre-existing movie? Remember the Steve Martin flick called Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which had old-time movie stars interacting with the wild-and-crazy comedian? For Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the American distributors used rear views of doubles to make it look like Burr was interacting with the Japanese cast, then mixed new footage of Burr and assorted extras in with the original movie. You'll notice that whenever the principals of the original are seen together, they do a separate group shot of Burr with extras. (Incidentally, the wire service reporter played by Burr is named Steve Martin.)
The movie opens with Martin crawling out from under a pile of rubble in demolished Tokyo. In a narration that evokes film noir, he tells us that his trip to Tokyo "turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world." At one point later, we see that he's tape recording his account in case he's no longer around. Burr's Martin reminded me a little bit of Darren McGavin on the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
After talking with Emiko (or her stand-in) when he's taken to a hospital, he flashes back to the start of his visit. It seems he was in town to visit an old friend, Dr. Serizawa, whom he only gets to talk to in a phone conversation (through the miracle of dubbing and another stand-in). Seems there's a giant prehistoric monster stomping through, so everyone's kind of busy.
The intrepid Martin is busy himself, since he manages to find himself on hand wherever the monster is attacking—whether it be Odo Island, site of the first attack, or a fiery downtown Tokyo—until he becomes trapped in the rubble of an attack himself.
By now, we know that Gojira's a guy in a rubber suit (two, actually, Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka) and the buildings he stomps are scale models. Even so, the scene in which he crashes through a field of high-voltage wires, while the authorities are waiting to see if they've managed to cook a giant lizard, retains its suspense as a classic monster movie moment. The black-and-white film makes the glowing, crackling line of electricity stand out even more here.
Less familiar but far more memorable are human moments. When Serizawa shows Emiko his weapon, the ambient heartbeat hum of machinery as he prepares his demonstration may make your heart beat a bit faster. Instead of seeing the Oxygen Destroyer in use, we see Emiko's horrified, screaming face, more unsettling than the actual destruction. Later, Emiko's face tells us that she wants to betray Serizawa's secret as she—and we—view a hospital ward full of injured Gojira survivors after an attack. As Serizawa is deciding whether to use his secret weapon a TV shows the aftermath across Tokyo.
Indeed, Serizawa's terrible choice—not Gojira's attacks—becomes the centerpiece of the Japanese version. Ogata and Emiko urge him to deploy his Oxygen Destroyer to save Tokyo, but he realizes that once unleashed, a device that rivals a nuclear bomb could be used again. Should he save Tokyo and risk many more lives? His conflict echoes the debate over atomic weapons that was looming large when the movie was first released. Serizawa's decision is clearly telegraphed, but the final scene in which he uses his Oxygen Destroyer against Gojira is beautifully done, with gentle music playing over the beast's then-final screams.
By putting the emphasis on Raymond Burr as Steve Martin, the American version takes the emphasis off of Serizawa's decision. It shows him making the decision and does mention that H-bomb tests brought Godzilla back from the depths, but it's Martin here who urges Emiko to plead with Serizawa to convince him to use the doomsday device. The dubbed scenes are also shortened, which minimizes the impact of the decision.
That said, the American film uses Burr's omnipresent narration and the presence of a helpful Japanese translator to cut down on the dubbing; it appears that the people who put it together recognized the inherent silliness of Japanese people talking in English when Martin isn't present. It also preserves much of the original's haunting, somber tone, particularly in the final scene. The movie's many dialogue-free scenes of the monster destroying the city and the devastation that follows helped the new version.
How does the American version hold up overall? The storytelling is less graceful than in the version screened in Japanese theaters, but they did a good job of reworking the movie on a low budget. You might wonder why Burr seems to be walking into a shipping office at the airport, but the obvious glitches—except for the handful of badly-dubbed scenes you'd expect—are minimal. Still, it pales in comparison to Gojira. Those who've seen the Burr version on TV before probably will still like it, though it may go over better if you watch it first or separately. I suspect it will wear worse with people who haven't seen this version before, since subtitles have moved closer to the mainstream.
The picture quality of the Japanese original loses something with age, despite preservation efforts. It's full of scratches and lines, with shadows making it hard to read some night scenes, including those Gojira rampages, and day scenes are occasionally washed out. After Gojira develops an eerie glow from electricity, though, the night scenes improve somewhat. The slightly better quality of the American-filmed scenes clues us in on the fact that the picture quality wasn't that good to begin with; the commentators cite problems with matte work and editing. The subtitles are sometimes difficult to read in Gojira, since they're yellow on black-and-white film, and they occasionally leave out things like the lyrics to a poetic song performed at a memorial service for Godzilla's victims. The soundtrack was low budget to begin with, but I could hear the hum of machinery and the stomping (both done with musical instruments, the commentary explains) just fine.
"Our film was a big experiment, so to cover up all of its shortcomings, we needed to have a better story. That was the idea. (Story writer Shigeru) Kayama had a big responsibility," special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya wrote. He's quoted in "Godzilla: Story Development," one of the extra features here. This one and "Making of the Godzilla Suit" show how the Toho team created a monster from start to finish, with two firsts: The first Japanese use of storyboards and the first rubber-suit monster. The short features use stills and some of those storyboards to recreate the making of the landmark Japanese film.
The commentary by Joseph Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski expands on the information in the featurettes nicely while letting the two experts' love for their subject come through. They're a little less reverent on the Burr version, joking about the actor's "blank stare" (apparently because he just didn't know where to look). Ultimately, though, they ask, "What if nobody had bothered to do this?" It's an important question, since this is the version that made Godzilla a worldwide phenomenon. They even point out a couple of improvements, like a line of dialogue that suggests that the electric towers that Godzilla crashes through had always ringed Tokyo, rather than being built as a monster trap. In the Godzilla commentary, they include tape of a couple of interviews with people involved in the American version, giving us insight into what was then an unusual project.
Trailers for both versions of the movie are included. I was disappointed that no subtitles were provided for the Japanese trailer; the American trailer features scenes of the monster stomping Tokyo with a voiceover that sounds like a carnival barker's pitch.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the Japanese Gojira will always loom large over the series with a dramatic tension that the predictable sequels lack, some viewers might find that having seen the Americanized version and the sequels takes away from the viewing experience.
For example, a line like, "I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of his species. But if we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in this world, again," still has the somber meaning intended, but that could be diminished by the memories of King Kong vs. Godzilla.
Why did Godzilla: King of the Monsters take the emphasis away from the anti-atomic debate? The overall clipped, condensed feel of the American version suggests simply that the movie's American distributors were uneasy about long dubbed passages.
The original Japanese cut of Gojira shows the power of science fiction to tell stories that couldn't be told in other ways. The commentators note that, while American censors had gone home and Japanese moviemakers were free to comment on the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was one of the few Japanese films to make a statement about war and the atomic arms race. The best works of science fiction have a metaphoric quality that makes us think about the world we live in.
If your only expectation is to see a few buildings get smashed by a giant monster, Gojira will be a real eye opener.
Not guilty, though a film with this sort of artistic storytelling eloquence requires a better arthouse title than Gojira or Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Something like The Breath of a Giant Prehistoric Reptile, perhaps…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Classic Media
• Audio Commentaries by Joseph Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski
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