Gojira (DVD)

Gojira DVD ReviewStarring GODZILLA! (also Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, and [to a lesser extent] Raymond Burr)

Directed by Ishiro Honda (and Terry O. Morse)

Released by Classic Media

Fans of the greatest giant lizard ever now have reason to rejoice. And, by the way, if you think you know Gojira, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Packed within this shiny black box are two disks of fire-breathing goodness and a few tasty extras that are sure to have fans re-examining their favorite rubber-suit monster. Also revealed may be the secret to one of the uglier trends in Hollywood today. More on that later.

Disc One contains Ishiro Honda’s masterpiece, the 1954 original Japanese release of Gojira. Available for the first time in wide release, this movie is remarkably different from the 1956 version that graced American screens. Gojira opens up with a freighter mysteriously vanishing in the Pacific. When rescue boats meet the same fate, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. It turns out that recent testing of hydrogen bombs have awakened, and mutated, a prehistoric beast that proceeds to flatten everything in its path. The movie is a protest by the filmmakers and writers against nuclear weapons and against war, as is evidenced in the remarkably disturbing and moving scenes. Without shying away from subjects such a Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Ishiro Honda provides a fascinating allegory for weapons of mass destruction, showing the horrors of war and the real victims.

Even in 1954, however, the US film market just couldn’t leave well enough alone. As continues to happen today with movies like Ring and Ju-on, America decided to take a perfectly good movie and mess it up. The second disc includes the 1956 re-release, retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Gone are the messages, the tragedy, and the real underlying theme of the movie. Instead, American producers re-cut the film and inserted Raymond Burr as a reporter who is there to … Well, no one knows. But he does manage to continuously show up in the right place at the right time and look at least mildly concerned. He also provides the movie with some great expository narrative. For the most part, he’s just there to explain what’s going on to the viewers, a tradition that Hollywood continues to this day.

Gojira DVD ReviewIncluded on the first disc are two documentaries. The first, “The Making of the Godzilla Suit,” will give viewers new respect for the man within the lizard. Following the suit from concept to final product, this featurette provides some truly humorous insight. Viewers can thrill to seeing the various incarnations of Gojira, from the first “sea monster” suit to the “warty” suit and finally the “alligator” suit. It also shows some of the interesting setbacks in production. For example, many viewers may not know that, due to a slight miscalculation and to the fact that they’d never worked with latex before, the first suit came out weighing more than 200 pounds and was completely rigid. It wasn’t until an actor collapsed inside the suit that the producers figured out something was wrong. Another suit was made, the temperature within which reached over 130 degrees, making actors sweat more than a cup of liquid out of their bodies during takes. Watching the process of construction is more than enough to make the unsung heroes of the rubber suit and the artisans who created it seem to deserve every accolade in the industry.

The second documentary details the origins of the story. Beginning with the vague idea of Tomoyuki Tanaka, this featurette discusses the origins within post-World War II Japan and the destruction-inspired visuals contained therein. With a story written by popular Japanese sci-fi writer Shigeru Kayama, the crew set to work trying to figure out how to translate a nuclear sea monster tale to the big screen. Also included are details about what was cut out, what changes were made, and what bizarre little quirks never made the cut. One prime example is the case of a brilliant scientist in the film, who is portrayed as a traditional family man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. According to the original story he was to be a mad scientist complete with cape and mansion.

Gojira DVD ReviewIncluded with both movies are commentary tracks by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. On both tracks the comments sound, at times, scripted and forced, but the information they contain is usually interesting. With the first film, Ryfle and Godziszewski discuss the imagery and disclose a few of the more interesting special effects. They also go into more detail about the relationships between the characters as well as the general climate of Japan at the time. On the second film, however, both men seem to spend most of the movie trying to convince the audience, and themselves, that the American edition wasn’t all that bad. In fact, they point out several times that, had it not been for the butchery job on the film, the American audience might never have heard of Godzilla. It is difficult not to laugh during a few of their more tongue-in-cheek comments about Burr and his acting and the fact that he was just dropped into scenes with body doubles. However, it is interesting to hear taped interviews from the very people responsible for getting the big lizard out in front of the American audience so long ago as well as Bruce Goldstein, who worked on the American cut with his father.

As a final bonus on this disk, there is a sixteen-page booklet that discusses, albeit briefly, the origins of the film. While all of the information in the booklet can be learned by listening to the audio commentary, it is still a nice little bonus.

On the whole, this set is a wonderful addition, but it just seems that there is something missing. True, the audio commentary tends to get annoying, but the information is worth a listen. So what’s missing? More. More information about Gojira, more production notes, more behind-the-scenes images and stories and footage. Not to sound greedy, but two featurettes just don’t seem like enough to keep Godzilla fans satisfied. We just can’t get enough of the big lizard.

Special Features
“The Making of the Gozilla Suit” featurette
“Godzilla: Story Development” featurette
Audio commentaries for both movies by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski
Original movie trailers
English subtitles

4 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit