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Review - Gojira/ Godzilla 50th Anniv. Ed. (DVD-2006)
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Gojira/ Godzilla (50th Anniversary Edition) (DVD-2006)

Classic Media

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski

 

Mention to moviegoers the word Godzilla, the giant 150 foot tall creature resurrected from the ocean depths by repeated atomic bomb testing, and it will stir memories, for some, of poorly dubbed, cheesy color films made from the 1960’s until the turn of the century where Godzilla battled every manner of monster and menace to society.  Others may think of that most unfortunate 1998 American remake with Matthew Broderick.  But many may remember the original Godzilla film--the black and white classic with actor Raymond Burr.

 

Most of those films have been available on video and DVD for quite some time. But no DVD has done justice to Godzilla--until now--with the release of a special two-disc set from Classic Media.

 

That’s because that 1956 Raymond Burr film was not quite the original Godzilla.  The original Godzilla, or Gojira, as it is known in Japanese, was released in Japan in 1954.  The big budget film, directed by Ishiro Honda, featured a Japanese cast, Japanese dialogue, innovative special effects and stark black and white photography that conveyed a gritty documentary kind of realism.  The film is powerful, poetic and eloquent.  Its artistic anti-atomic war statement evoked memories of Hiroshima.  It quickly became the biggest money-maker in Japan’s box office history. 

 

Gojira was made available for U.S. distribution in the era before widespread subtitled international releases.  So producers Harold Ross and Richard Kay came up with the idea of filming footage with an American actor--Raymond Burr--in sets that matched the original film sets and then splicing Burr’s performance into an English dubbed version re-titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  Some forty minutes were cut from the original Japanese film and the order of some scenes was re-arranged.  In addition, scenes were extended or altered to heighten suspense or to make it appear that Godzilla was looking directly at Burr’s character.  And special effects and sound effects were also added to make the film more intense. 

 

Burr played an American news correspondent working in Tokyo during Godzilla’s attack.  Some dialogue was left in the original Japanese and conveyed to Burr through an interpreter which heightened the film’s already-effective documentary-like realism.  Indeed, Burr’s serious demeanor in scenes where he describes Godzilla’s rampage are uniquely powerful.

 

The whole project was overseen by director Terry Morse and his re-cutting and reworking of the film was ingenious.  It kept intact the essence of the original Japanese version and fooled reviewers at the time, and it fools moviegoers to this day, into thinking Burr was in the original film.

 

The American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters is a splendid film in its own right and it has played an important part in film history in enabling Godzilla to reach a global audience and enjoy much success.

 

But this also meant that, for the last 50 years, virtually no one outside of Japan ever saw the original film, Gojira.   That sad neglect was rectified in 2004 when the original Gojira, in Japanese with English subtitles, played in cinemas throughout the United States.  Rapturously received by reviewers and audiences, it was hailed as a masterpiece.

 

The Japanese version builds more skillfully and the film’s anti-nuclear theme (still resonant in 2006) is more poignant. That, along with an epic grandeur, a very Japanese sensibility and a poetic melancholy makes Gojira memorable. 

 

The two-disc DVD set from Classic Media contains the original un-cut 1954 Gojira in a print transfer direct from the Toho Company vaults.  Occasional speckles in the print are inherent in the original itself.  Also included on the second disc is the 1956 Raymond Burr American version.  Excellent specifically tailored audio commentaries are provided for both versions and the handsomely packaged set also includes two featurettes and an outstanding essay on the history of the films.

 

There is so much that is unique about Godzilla:  the specific and famous Godzilla roar.  The pounding footsteps.  The slow lumbering movements as the monster is seen in the distance.  The way the dorsal fins light up when Godzilla emits his incendiary radioactive breath.  The nightmarish dreamlike quality of the film.  The striking images of Tokyo ringed with fire.  The truly magnificent music score of Akira Ifukube.

 

Classic Media’s two-disc set of both the original Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters is an essential and wonderfully entertaining set that belongs in every movie lover’s DVD collection.

 

 

2006 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams

 

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