Where to begin? Toho Company Ltd. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was originally scheduled to produce a film to be shot in Indonesia, but when that project fell through, he knew he needed something to replace it…and he needed it fast. As the legend goes, Tanaka gazed out of an airplane window into the dark and foreboding Pacific Ocean. He envisioned a “what-if” scenario of a giant prehistoric monster rising from the ocean depths to terrorize modern civilization. Of course, being a film producer, Tanaka knew the commercial possibilities of such a story. 1933’s KING KONG was re-released in 1952 worldwide to tremendous success and Warner Bros, was scoring a major box office bonanza with the Ray Harryhausen classic, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). Tanaka took the basic stories of both films and, instead of New York being attacked as it was in both KING KONG and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, Tokyo became the target of the monster’s assault. The rest of course is history and GOJIRA was released on November 3, 1954 in Japan to a tremendous reception and at that time was the most expensive film produced in the country. Names like Ishiro Honda (director), Akira Ifukubie (composer), Tanaka (producer), and most of all, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya became household names and started the trend of a variety of giant behemoths terrorizing Japan (RODAN, VARAN, MOTHRA, GHIDRAH, etc.).
In April 1956, GOJIRA made his American debut in a greatly re-edited version of the original Japanese version. The producers of the American release (Edmund Goldman, Richard Kay and Joseph E. Levine) knew that it would be very difficult to book a subtitled Japanese language film iwith an all Japanese cast and crew whose names meant nothing to American audiences. The decision was made to take the Japanese produced film and Americanize it to the point where it could be sold as an stateside film which happens to take place in Japan, making it appear as if it were a co-production between the American producers and Toho Company Ltd. Character actor Raymond Burr had not yet achieved worldwide stardom in “Perry Mason.” He was a familiar and reliable character actor whose most famous credit at that point was as the white-haired murderer in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954). Burr was hired for a few days work (the actual amount of days he worked varies from person to person) along with other Japanese/American actors, as well as some who would double for the Japanese version’s actors in scenes where Burr’s character has to interact with them. With clever editing, it was hoped no one would notice that these were in fact doubles for Japanese actors Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Koichi and Akkihiko Hirata. Other performers like James Wong and Sammee Tong were hired to do the dubbed voices of the Japanese male members of the cast. The Americanized version of GOJIRA was renamed GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS and an icon of American and Japanese pop culture was born.
For many years, the only available version of GOJIRA in the west was the Americanized version with the Raymond Burr added scenes. However, in 1982, a subtitled print of GOJIRA turned up in the United States and many critics who laughed at the Americanized release as a trivial and campy piece of trash, now began to look at the film as the frightening allegory against nuclear war as director Ishiro Honda intended. After all, the Japanese were the only people to ever suffer a nuclear attack, so who better than to tell this particular tale from their point of view than Japanese filmmakers. Throughout the 1990s, GOJIRA began turning up at conventions or on mail order sites as bootleg VHS tapes and then finally…by they beginning of the 21st century, GOJIRA began playing theatrically at places like New York’s Film Forum in re-mastered Toho approved prints where everyone could enjoy this classic as it was intended. Finally, after long negotiations with Toho, Classic Media has released to DVD both the original 1954 GOJIRA in Japanese with English subtitles as well as the 1956 Americanized version with Raymond Burr. This is the first installment of several Godzilla films (as well as a few other non-Godzilla Toho monster films) that Classic Media is expected to release over the coming months.
Classic Media’s presentation features an attractive hard clamshell cover (VERY similar to the 2004 re-releases of Universal’s classic horror DVDs) with a great photograph of Godzilla in the water. The two disc-set features the original GOJIRA in a proper full frame transfer which looks a lot like the remastered 35mm print this reviewer saw at New York’s Film Forum in 2004. For a film now over 50 years old, it looks quite good considering Toho’s film stock was quite inferior to what it would later become post-1963. If one looks at Toho monster movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s (like GODZILLA, RODAN, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA) and compares them to later films (KING KONG ESCAPES, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS), one would most definitely see grainy prints for the early films and a much sharper and clearer pictures for the later titles. Toho did the best they could with this fine grain print struck for Classic Media’s new High Definition master. Viewers should be warned that there will be scratches and grain on the film although it probably looks as good as it ever will, even with 2006 technology. The original Japanese mono audio is quite good, and the English subtitles are in very sharp yellow.
The first disc features an excellent audio commentary by Godzilla experts and authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. Their comments are insightful, extremely informative, and both men illustrate themselves to be true fans of Godzilla films in general. Other special features on the GOJIRA disc include two newly produced featurettes (“Godzilla: Story Development” and “Making of the Godzilla Suit”), written and narrated by Ed Godziszewski and edited by Bill Gudmundson. Both are excellent and give the viewers an enormous amount of information of how the story of GOJIRA developed from a germ of an idea in Tomoyuki Tanaka’s head into the worldwide phenomena it eventually became. In addition, the use of rare production photographs and drawings of the various ideas for the Godzilla suit shows how long and hard everyone connected to the film worked to make it something special. The GOJIRA disc also features the original Japanese trailer which ballyhoos the human cast and drama more than the monster footage. This is a direct contrast to the American trailer which is nothing except Godzilla (even Raymond Burr’s name is not mentioned and he was fairly recognizable even though he had not yet started playing Perry Mason).
For Disc 2, the transfer for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS appears to be the same American print used for Classic Media’s 2002 DVD release. The full frame transfer looks pretty good, and actually, the American-photographed footage looks better than the Japanese footage, once again owing to the inferiority of the Toho film and negative stock at that time. There is actually less grain and scratching on the American scenes, and the English audio is presented in a clear mono mix. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski also return with an audio commentary, this time joined (about a third of the way into the film) by Terry Morse, Jr., son of the late director of the American version. The only other extra on Disc 2 is the 50 second TV spot. One big revelation on the American version is the inclusion of ending credits which have not been seen since the film’s original 1956 theatrical release. On television airings, all viewers ever saw was a title card stating the film’s name…not even Raymond Burr was ever credited on TV prints. The ending credits appear to have been taken from a beat up print and are slightly letterboxed with sounds of Godzilla’s footsteps in the background. The credits include the names of the Japanese cast members as well as the Japanese crew and their American version counterparts. This version is the complete 80 minute version and the Japanese version on Disc 1 runs its complete 98 minutes.
The disc’s packaging also includes a glossy 16-page booklet which includes photos and information about the making of the film and its subsequent American incarnation. All in all, this two disc special edition is a good start to some interesting future releases from Classic Media. November 7, 2006 will bring GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (THE THING) while dates for the remainder of the titles (GHIDRAH, MONSTER ZERO, GODZILLA’S REVENGE and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA) will be announced in the near future. (Joe Cascio)
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