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Gojira / Godzilla King of the Monsters

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For those out there like me the fifties were more than a little bit frightening. The threat of nuclear weapons was a daily fact of life. Our teachers would herd us down to the school’s basement and make us hide in bomb shelters. Radiation was not only the biggest fear to most of us but it was nothing short of a major boon to American filmmakers. Radiation could be used to explain all sorts of mutants, monsters and dangers. This trend was not restricted to the States, Japan got into the crazy. Realistically for the people of that nation the dangers of radiation are a lot more than a hypothetical. In 1954 cinema history was made with the Japanese release of Gojira. Not only did it become a hit in Japan the American film industry wanted to get in on the action and re-cut the film adding a familiar American actor to make it more acceptable in this country. There has been other DVD releases that combined both the original Japanese version and the Americanized one but Sony Pictures has just released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American release with both versions treated as true classics.

It is business as usual for the Japanese fishing boat Eiko-Maru until a flash of what seems to be lightening hits them. The lightening appears to be coming from the island of Oto and overwhelms the small craft. A rescue boat is sent but meets the same mysterious fate. The inhabitants of the island are worried. Fishing has dwindled down to nothing and old tales of a monster have become a main topic of conversation. The elders blame the hardship on Gorjira, a hideous creature that lives in the sea and attacks humans. Reporters from Japan come to the island to investigate but the storms and destruction continues. Doctor Kyohei Yamane-hakase (Takashi Shimura), a famous paleontologist is asked to help out and begins his analysis. Yamane goes to the island and discovers a huge footprint unlike any he has ever seen, more than that the imprints are highly radioactive. At this point a roar is heard and the creature pops in for his momentous first appearance. Yemane begins to piece things together. The creature was a left over from pre-historic times. He was brought out of a long hibernation by recent tests of nuclear warheads. The appearance of a large amount of Strontium-90 contamination confirms the doctor’s hypothesis. The authorities are reluctant to tell the truth to the world. The delicate balance of power would be threatened if the existence of the monster and his origins are made known. The creature makes his way to Tokyo harbor and heads towards the city. All the defenses included a wire fence charged with 50,000 volts is unable to stop him. A secret weapon is unveiled, one that will remove all oxygen in the water. It is hoped that this might stop Gojira but at the expense of all life in the ocean. While all of this is going on they also add a romantic triangle. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) is set to marry a colleague of her father, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa-hakase (Akihiko Hirata). The problem is Emiko is in love with an officer of the Nankai Steamship Company, Lieutenant Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). There emotional entanglements get in the way of their helping to resolve the crisis at hand.

Many significant changes where made two years after the original release to bring the film to the States. First, it was renamed ‘Godzilla, King Of The Monsters’. For this a new character was introduced. Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) is a reporter for United World News is in Tokyo on a lay over on the way to Cairo. He just happens to be in the city when the biggest story of the century begins to unfold. He visits his old friend Dr. Serizawa, the finance of Dr. Yamane’s daughter. The scenes with Burr where added by Terry Morse who has worked as both a director and an editor. Much of the love triangle was removed from the Americanized version to make way for the scenes with Burr chasing the story and reporting over the radio during the destruction of Tokyo. There are several cases where Burr is speaking to a Japanese actor whose back is to the camera. This is obviously a ploy to make the additions somewhat seamless. Many of the references to nuclear testing as the cause were also removed.

In considering the merits of this film you have to remember that only nine years before Japan became the first, and thankfully only, nation attacked by an atomic weapon. There was a strong sense of dread among the Japanese public regarding such weapons and the unknown consequences they would bring. The film as originally cut was an indictment of the nuclear age. The use of the Oxygen weapon showed that science wields a two edged sword. They can help mankind but there is almost always a very high price to pay. With the removal so many references to nuclear testing the film shifted from an anti-war/anti nukes film to a more straight forward monster flick. It is fascinating to watch both versions and see first hand just how a little editing can completely alter the impact of a film.

I have the previous two-film pack and this new release blows it away. The previous release was a mess technically. This one pays attention to the material and offers extras that help the serious fan understand both versions of the film. The original film is presented in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The video is overall well done with some signs of age in the stock footage scenes. There are some variation in the contrast and a few specks now and again but this is the best I have ever seen this film. The video is in Japanese Dolby 2.0 with optional English subtitles. The Americanized version is also in full screen with Dolby 2.0 mono audio. The picture quality is very good considering this is a 50th anniversary release. What truly sets this box set above the previous release is the extras. The packaging is a sturdy book like box that opens to reveal the original film on one disc and the American cut on a second disc. The previous release had a flippy in a standard, flimsy package. In between the two discs is the 16 page booklet that contains the whole back story of the films. There is an audio commentary featuring Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-star and Ed Godziszewski, editor and publisher of Japanese Giants magazine. They provide an excellent over view of the film and its impact on movies over the last five decades. There is also a featurette ‘the Making of Godzilla’ which shows how a man in a rubber suit became a film icon. There is also a featurette ‘The Godzilla Story; which shows how the film has survived over the decades. This is one set that should not be missed.

Posted 8/16/06

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