Friday, September 01, 2006

Classic Media's "Gojira" review

If Classic Media had simply put out a DVD of the Japanese version of "Gojira," with no extras and a crappy clamshell cover, it would still be one of, if not the, major giant monster event of the year. The movie has long deserved to be seen this way, its recent tour of art house theaters was important, but being available in everyone's home is crucial.

But that's not where Classic Media stopped. Their 2-disc "Gojira" DVD set, which is officially being released Sept. 5, is a beautiful piece of work that is absolutely essential for giant monster and Godzilla fans and, probably more importantly, film buffs in general.

The first thing that hits you is how beautiful the packaging of this disc is. The cover shows Godzilla's gray image surrounded by sea and black sky. At the top is the red lettering of Gojira, with the Japanese symbols for the monster's name a shadowy gray behind it. The case is cardboard, giving the feel of a hardcover book.

Open the package up and there is a plastic tray for each version of the movie. Beneath the disc for "Gojira" is a photo of Godzilla breathing atomic fire across the Tokyo skyline. Underneath "Godzilla King of the Monsters" is the monster rising from the sea in its death throes, our heroes' ship in the background.

Inside is a booklet with an essay called "Godzilla's Footprint" written by Steve Ryfle, author of "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star," one of the best books on Godzilla films. The essay helps put the films in perspective of the times. It also details the stories of the creators behind the films. The booklet contains a couple of nice stills from "Gojira."

I was surprised by the number of pops, lines and other artifacts in the film. In this age of cleaned up films, I expected things to look much cleaner. However, the explanation for it came in the commentary. First, because of the matte work and layered film used for effects, there were flaws from the first time this film was shown. Second, Japan used a lower quality film stock than American films of the same time period. Therefore, much of the film degraded quickly and prints would not come much cleaner than this.

There is, of course, no widescreen here. The movie was not filmed in Tohoscope, so its shape is much the same as your TV screen. I detected nothing cut off or missing (however, I've never seen the film in a movie theater, having missed last summer's showings.)

"Gojira" seems to be subtitled very well. I don't know Japanese, so I can't tell the quality of translation, but it does read well. There were no mistypes or spelling errors that I could see.

Most importantly, it was wonderful to see "Gojira" again. Before this, I had only seen bootleg copies on VHS tape. The movie is truly dark and dismal. There's a seriousness to the film unlike any other giant monster film. Unlike almost all of Ishiro Honda's other work, there is no irony or humor in "Gojira." There is no doubt Honda was making a film for adults dealing with issues that were still raw for the Japanese public.

I'm also impressed with the structure of the movie. In most giant monster movies, one of the most difficult problems to overcome is creating an interaction between the characters and the monster, making the human drama as compelling as the devastation. Only during the long destruction of Tokyo are the characters removed from the center of the film. In particular, I was impressed with the love triangle at the center of the film. Emiko and Ogata confront Serizawa about the oxygen destroyer. This would be compelling drama on its own, but it deepens and becomes more powerful knowing that their argument is about more than just that issue. When Ogata and Serizawa fight, Serizawa is lashing out against a world that would use his discovery for evil and against Ogata directly. Yamane's character is also well drawn. He wants to save Godzilla, not because the monster is one of a kind or some other misguided impulse, but because he sees in studying Godzilla the possibility of saving people's lives. Despite his misgivings, however, he still helps the government in finding a way to defeat Godzilla. In an American monster movie of the time, (think "The Thing from Another World") the scientist would be a madman not really in touch with the situation.

"Godzilla, King of the Monsters" suffers from being packaged with "Gojira." The things that make the original great are hollowed out. Terry Morse and Raymond Burr did a good job with what they had, and if they hadn't done it Godzilla may never have had the level of fame it's reached, but it doesn't have the gravitas of the original. But it is still wonderful to have this film side by side with the original. This was, after all, the version that brought Godzilla to worldwide fame.

The extras on the disc include a commentary on each film by Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski (the creator of Japanese Giants magazine as well as many other fandom publications). There are also two featurettes, one on the making of the Godzilla suit and the second on how the story of "Gojira" was developed. There are also original theatrical trailers on each disc.

All these extra materials are very informative. There were many pieces of information I had never heard before, and I've read much about the Godzilla films. In particular, the commentary for "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" includes snippets from interviews with people involved with bringing the film to America and an interview with Terry Morse Jr., the son of the American director who also worked on the film. This is great stuff and is essential listening for any Godzilla fan.

The featurettes are basically still photos while commentary continues about the movies. The featurette on story development fascinated me (although I imagine many fans will be more interested in the suit-making story of the other featurette.) After hearing it, I really would like to see the original version of Shigeru Kayama's story for "Gojira." It sounds much different from the film and fascinating in its own right. Just hearing the plot details of Kayama's story goes to show how much work Ishiro Honda put into the film. After Honda finished with the film, it was no longer Kayama's story. Honda had made it his own, and much more dramatic and affecting. (Of course, this is all judging from what the featurette tells us. Maybe Kayama's story was much more dramatic in other ways.) Regardless, I am now fascinated with Kayama as he supposedly wrote stories before Godzilla about sea creatures. I wonder if any of his work has been translated? (Actually, I just found this page about an effort to get Kayama's story translated.)

Previous to this release, the only other "Gojira" release in English was BFI's Godzilla disc. Many of the same people worked on both packages, including Ryfle and Godziszewski, but as I understand it, Classic Media's extras are all new. Still, the BFI disc (which I have not seen) includes the one Japanese version of the film, a commentary by three Godzilla experts (the third expert (I think, I welcome corrections) was Keith Aiken, who worked on the animated Godzilla series in the U.S.) It also includes two featurettes that sound very similar to Classic Media's, one on story development and one on suit building. There is also a documentary called "12 Japanese Fishermen." It's a documentary from the 1950s on the effects of radiation on Japanese fishermen.

It sounds to me, from my uninformed position, that Classic Media's release stands up well against BFI's. It's too bad the documentary on Japanese fishermen was not included, but it alone is probably not worth the price of importing BFI's disc.

This disc is a dream come true for me and probably for most Godzilla fans. Finally, the original film treated with respect and care. This bodes well for Classic Media's upcoming releases of "Godzilla Raids Again" and "Godzilla vs. Mothra," which will get very similar treatment. In the meantime, "Gojira" gets a place of honor in my collection.