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Mention the great green giants name and you're likely to conjure up mental images of poorly achieved 'man-in-suit' sequences and the entire population of Tokyo pointing the sky and shouting "Go-zilla! Run!" Yes, this is the way we choose to remember Japan's most recognizable and enduring screen legend. A shame that we can't remember instead the film that began it all, the cinematic masterpiece known as Gojira ( Godzilla from now on.) Lucky for American audiences, the original Japanese cut has finally made it's way to DVD, so put all two dozen plus sequels out of your mind (especially Minya: The Son of Godzilla) and join me as I check out Godzillas first outing in this new two-disc release.

Gojira
Feature
A Japanese freighter mysteriously vanishes in the pacific ocean. Several rescue boats sent to find survivors meet the same fate. Local villagers suspect that the missing ships fell victim to a prehistoric beast, Gojira, but the authorities have their doubts. Doubts that are quickly laid to rest when the gargantuan beast surfaces onto land, leveling Tokyo and leaving in it's wake a devastated city. The only hope for mankind is the oxygen destroyer, a new weapon made by a reclusive and tormented scientist, Dr. Serizawa. With future devastation eminent, can Serizawa's friends convince him that his device is one that can actually help mankind by destroying the monster and not like the nuclear weapons that preceded it?

Powerful. It's a word that I'll probably use several times too many in this review, but it's one that I think fits the original Godzilla best. Having grown up with the American version, before now I'd never known just how much I was missing out on. This original cut serves as a spectacular allegory to the consequences of nuclear warfare, rich with human drama and impressive special effects (impressive for 1954.) I'd say the package artwork is being modest when it hails the film as "...one of the greatest monster movies of all time.".

Being a sucker for any movie with a message, I really took to the film's anti-war theme. It's easy to realize that the horror of Godzilla isn't the creatures rampage on Tokyo, that's just a man in a rubber suit destroying scale models. The true horror is in the faces of the wounded in the hospital shelter. A woman dies on a hospital bed, a child cries out for her dead mother. I knew watching the disfigured and crippled try to cope with their situation that these weren't survivors of some monster attack. These were the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a startling reminder of why nuclear warfare should never be an option. Godzilla is an amazing plea for peace.

Gojira
A good monster movie should be careful in how it revels the monster to its audience. Much in the same way that Spielberg would later reveal the shark in Jaws, director Ishiro Honda takes his time in giving us a glimpse of the title character. The suspense begins with the opening titles, initially only featuring the earth-trembling footsteps of the beast followed by its mighty roar. Suspense builds as Honda gives us the first several on-screen casualties of the monster, keeping the creature out of frame, but not earshot. It's only against the backdrop of night that we get a full shot of Godzilla. The camera mostly stays at eye-level, shooting the creature against a horizon of fire, Tokyo in flames. The result is a truly nightmarish sequence of pitch black terror, one of the few times I'd ever consider a 'man-in-suit' film scary.

Switch over to disc two and you'll find the "Americanized" version of the flick. No, I'm not talking about the Roland Emmerich remake, but rather the re-edited version of the original released two years later, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Even though I'm highly opposed to changing an original work of art for a foreign audience, I can understand why the movie was re-cut for its overseas release. One has to wonder, how would American audiences have taken to having such an unflattering mirror held to their faces just eleven years after Nagasaki? Could Godzilla have been viewed as anti-American propaganda? It's an interesting thought to entertain.

Having now seen the superior cut of Godzilla, I was prepared to loathe the American bastardization upon revisiting it. Somehow, I don't mind this inferior cut. Sure, it omits a substantial amount of Toho footage and re-edits much of what it does keep, but it's still an entertaining flick. The new footage of actor Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin (I kid you not) transforms the film into a straight-forward monster movie without all that 'messy' anti-war subtext. At times it felt like a cross between science fiction and film noir, although Burr (aka television's Perry Mason) could star in The Wizard of Oz and I'd see it as noir. This new footage is mostly well integrated, the exception being when we're given a stand-in for a Toho cast member. On its own, I'd rate this second cut with a harsh 6/10.

Gojira
Video
This release boasts that the original 1954 film has been re-mastered in high definition full-scren taken from a 35-mm print. I ask you, what's the point of creating a high definition transfer if your source print is in poor condition? The image quality of both films is borderline awful. It's not as if Classic Media had to restore some lost Charlie Chaplin silent, this film was made in 1954, only fifty two years ago. If by some weird chance the blame here lies with Tohos preservation methods (perhaps they let the master print soak in boiling acid all these years?) then I retract my jab at Classic Media, but either way; someone is at fault for this image quality.

Godzilla was shot black and white, ending up one of the darkest films I've come across in a while. I was fortunate enough to catch it on the big screen recently and am willing to bet its inherent to the film itself, which is okay by me. It actually adds a nightmarish quality to the monsters stomp on Tokyo. What I'm hoping isn't inherent to the film is the absurd amount of film scratches that plague my television screen. This release even has cigarette burns for crying out loud! No matter which version you watch, the prints are dirty. Far too dirty to be released in a special edition. For this, I give the video a generous 5/10 rating.

Audio
Each film is presented with its original mono track, which of course aren't terribly impressive (I wasn't expecting any sort of remix.) There isn't much I can say for this track; it's mono. Everything sounds fine whether we're listening to Akira Ifukube's memorable score or Godzilla himself leveling Tokyo. I'm satisfied and grade audio with a 6/10, the highest rating I can possibly give a mono setup.

Gojira
Extras
Open the case and you'll find a booklet containing the films production notes, complete with photos. These could've been included on the discs rather than in a booklet, but who really likes reading from their television screen? Not I, so this inclusion is appreciated. When you first insert either disc into your player, you're greeted by a nicely animated menu screen featuring Ifukubes score, something that should easily put you in the mood to watch Godzilla terrorize Japan.

Each film has its own audio commentary by well-informed Godzilla fans Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. For two people not involved with either production, these are fantastically thorough looks at the original films legacies. I found their commentary for the American cut more interesting than the original simply because of the challenges adapting the film for a new audience presented. It's also on this track that they're joined by a special guest who provides even more insight into the movie, the identity of whom I won't spoil by mentioning here. Two very solid supplements.

Commentator Ed Godziszewski narrates two featurettes 'Making of the Godzilla Suit' and ' Godzilla: Story Development', both running thirteen minutes in length. Godziszewski (say that five times fast) sounds less enthused by himself on these than he did on the commentaries with company, but still provides fantastic insight into the production of Godzilla. I greatly enjoyed the abundance of production photographs displayed in the suit featurette. Apparently the filmmakers thought a 'man-in-suit' approach would be much easier than stop-motion (like that of King Kong, a misassumption if there ever was one. These are two highly entertaining featurettes. Lastly, each film comes complete with its original theatrical trailer.

Gojira
Overall
Even though its reputation has been heavily tarnished by a long line of varied-quality sequels, the original Godzilla remains one of the greatest films to come out of Japan. Despite the visual shortcomings, this is still a must-own set for monster movie fans and cinema enthusaists alike, especially when you consider the well-produced supplements and low retail price of $21.98.


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