Laserblast: Gojira/Godzilla invades U.S video stores
The big DVD news for science-fiction fans this week is the release of “Gojira: The Original Japanese Masterpiece,” a two-disc set containing the original uncut, subtitled 1954 version of GOJIRA, plus the radically altered form of the movie that was released in the U.S. two years later, with additional footage of Raymond Burr, titled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS.
I’ve already reviewed GOJIRA, so for this post I’ll stick to details about the new DVD, which is something that every fan of Japanese giant monsters will surely want to own. It really is a must-have, and even more general sci-fi enthusiasts should consider adding a copy to their collection.
The DVDs come in a lovely box that, intentionally or not, suggest the look of import DVDs of the film that you used to find in specialty stores in Little Tokyo, like Anime Jungle. Inside the box there is a glossy sixteen-page booklet, featuring a few publicity photographs from the film, along with an excellent essay on the film’s history by Steve Ryfle (author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the “Big G).
Disc One contains GOJIRA (divided into 24 chapter stops), plus a handful of extras: an audio commentary, two featurettes, and a Japanese trailer.
Both featurettes consist of voice-over narration illustrated by publicity stills and/or storyboard artwork. The first documents the development of the story (along with the many changes that occurred betwixt conception and final execution). The second performs a similar service regarding the design and construction of the Godzilla suit. Both are so informative that even well-read fans may find much they do not already know, and the absence of on-screen interviews is hardly felt, thanks to the effective use of still images to illustrate the spoken text.
The audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski fares slightly less well. If you have read books are articles by either of these two experts, you are likely to hear much that is familiar, especially during the early portions of the film, when the discussion examines the general background of the film, rather than scene-specific details. Fortunately, as the two authors delve deeper into the subject, they mine details and offer opinions that should entertain and enlighten the faithful. In one case, they even point out a special effect that I had never noticed, despite watching the film numerous times: when the villagers on Odo Island respond to the alarm bell by running up hill, you can see Godzilla’s footprints in the hillside.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a solid argument for considering the film as a classic, and they do a good job of underlining the film’s themes, particularly as they are expressed in the conflicted character of Dr. Serizaway (Akihiko Hirata), a scientist whose invention can destroy Godzilla – but only at the potential cost of releasing an even more dangerous superweapon upon the world. They also acknowledge the film’s flaws (e.g., the miniature missiles bouncing off the painted sky in the background) without undermining their central thesis, that the film is a somber work worthy of serious consideration.
Disc Two contains GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (divided into a meager 9 chapter stops), a U.S. trailer, and another audio commentary by Ryfle and Godziszewski.
Unlike the Japanese trailer, which emphasizes the somber tone of the film, the American trailer is awash in enthusiastic hyberbole that is not only rather infectious but also gives a good idea of the diverging approach the American produces took when preparing the film for U.S. audiences, tightening the pace and emphasizing the action, so that the result emerged looking rather like a typical American sci-fi film from the period.
The audio commentary on this re-tooled version of the film is perhaps more interesting, because there is so much ground to cover in terms of pointing out the changes made and discussing the details of transplanting Gojira/Godzilla from Japan to America. Ryfle and Godziszewski are joined at different points by Ted Newsom and Terry Morse, Jr (son of the man who directed the new American footage), and Ryfle also plays audio excerts from interviews he conducted with some of the people involved in purchasing the rights to distribute the film in the U.S.
Although Ryfle and Godziszewski obviously prefer the original GOJIRA, they treat the Americanized version with respect, even pointing out a few instances when it improves upon the original, such as Ogata’s line to convince Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the monster: “You have your fear, which may become reality. And you have Godzilla, which is reality.”
Perhaps the most salient point that the duo make is that, although GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may seem like a bastardization of the original, it nonetheless deserves its place in film history because its success helped launch the Japanes giant monster craze that followed. GOJIRA may be the superior version, but it never would have played in local theatres across America. By adding Raymond Burr as a reporter-narrator, director Morse and company gave the film a much needed Occidental point-of-view that allowed audiences a way of seeing into the Japanese world of the film.
Unfortunately, as essential as this DVD set is, it is not quite perfect. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS lacks subtitles of any kind, making it difficult to follow the story while listening to the audio commentary (something I prefer to do). The subtitles on GOJIRA are of a slightly dull color, making them sometimes hard to read depending on the background image. Both prints are in good shape, having been struck relatively recently, but the sad fact is that that film may never be seen in pristine form again, thanks to wear and tear on the negative that especially rears its ugly head during the special effects scenes.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a gaffe or two. In the GOJIRA commentary, Godziszewski refers to a shot (of a mother huddling with her children during Gojira’s night-time raid on Tokyo) as missing from the American version, which is incorrect. Fortunately, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary, Ryfle rightly points out that the shot is there; it is simply not subtitled, so you miss its significance. (The young mother hopelessly tells her children they will be joining their father soon in heaven – which evokes thoughts of the Japanese soldiers who died in World War II.)
Perhaps most disappointing, the GOJIRA audio commentary mentions a reference to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that does not actually occur in the film, at least in the print on this DVD. In the scene (which was deleted from the American version), a woman commuter laments the appearance of Gojira and – in the subtitles for some prints – adds, “I hope I didn’t survive Nagasaki for nothing.” Although both Ryfle and Godziszewski mention the reference (Ryfle even quotes it later, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary), it is not seen in the subtitles here. And truth be told, listening to the Japanese dialogue, I’m not sure I can hear the woman say Nagasaki, leaving me to wonder if the subtitles on earlier prints were a mistake. In any case, it is a glaring anamoly to hear the two experts discussing something is not actually visible to the viewer, and only someone who had seen older import tapes of the movie would know what they are talking about.
Despite these minor flaws, the new GOJIRA DVD is a genuin gem. Thanks to later sequels, which rapidly dscended into juvenile, anthropomorphized antics, with Godzilla acting as the proctor of Earth against other monters and/or alien invasions, Godzilla is not something we take seriously as film art. Yet the monster’s very first film appearance ranks as one of the classic sci-fi-fantasy-horror films, worthy of standing beside the original KING KONG in all his majesty. Hopefully, this DVD will help secure GOJIRA’s rightful place in the pantheon of movie monsters.
Numerous other genre titles are out on DVD today. Many of them are familiar titles that are being re-issued, sometimes in revised DVD presentations with a few more extras than previously seen.
THE BELA LUGOSI BOX: 15 FRIGHTFUL FILMS. These are mostly awful titles like GLEN OR GLENDA. Of the batch, the only certifiable classic is WHITE ZOMBIE, and THE DEVIL BAT and THE BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT are worth renting once, if you’re a fan. All three of those titles are available separately, so there is little reason to pick up this box set, unless you are a completist who has to have everything.
BLADE RUNNER – THE DIRECTOR’S CUT. A remastered, limited edition of htis DVD is now out, but it is really just a way to grab some more of your money. It’s pretty much the same old disc that’s been available since the so-called director’s cut emerged in the 1990s, sans bonus features. In a few months, a real director’s cut will be released on DVD (including all the changes director Ridley Scott was not able to make before), packed with all extras you’ve been waiting for all these years.
BRAZIL: Criterion Collection offers up two versions of Terry Gilliam’s depressing, Orwellian fantasy film: a one-disc DVD and a three-disc DVD. You don’t need me to tell you which one is loaded with bonus features.
ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN arrive on a double-bill DVD. These films date from Disney’s awkward growing period, when they were trying to mature their children’s films to appeal to wider audiences. The results are not great, but the first film has its moments.
FANTASTIC FOUR has been available for a while, but here it is again, in case you missed you chance to buy a disc previously.
FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND: Roger Corman’s time-travel take on the Frankenstein mythos arrives on DVD. Although not quite matching his 1960s horror classic MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, this is quite an interesting movie – much better than the disappointing MARY SHELLY’S FRANKESTEIN that emerged a few years later.
FRIGHT NIGHT CLASSICS is a discount DVD offering four-hours of horror starring Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi. Both actors made their share of bad movies, so beware of this disc – unless you are planning to stage a live re-enactment of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 in your living room.
PRETTY POISON: This thiller, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld, is not exactly a horror film, but it does feel like a weird alternate univese take on PSYCHO, with Perkins this time cast as the innocent who runs afoul of a female homicidal maniac. Worth seeing.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and its mostly forgotten sequel SHOCK TREATMENT are out on DVD today. They have been available on home video before, but if your local store sold out, new copies should be available now.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. It seems likethis Mel Brooks spoof just came out on DVD a few months ago, but here it is again, like it or not.
ALSO OUT: Clive Barker’s THE PLAUGE; HOUSE OF THE DAMNED; 100 YEARS OF HORROR.