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September 22, 2009

Big in Japan: Godzilla’s past emerges from the depths of history on Blu-ray

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Gojira 1954 poster

Randy Lewis is back writing for the Hero Complex. Here’s his look back at the Lizard King of Japanese cinema…

The 2004 theatrical reissue of the original 1954 Japanese version of “Gojira,” which washed up on U.S. shores two years later in re-edited form as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” gave American audiences lots to rethink about the monster-movie classic.

With the restoration of 40 minutes of footage deleted for its stateside release and partially replaced with 20 minutes of new scenes built around the insertion of American actor Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, the movie and its antinuclear theme come through more powerfully, even though Gojira remains an actor in a rubbery suit stomping his way through miniaturized Japanese cities and villages.

The original “Gojira” comes to Blu-ray disc this week in a new high-definition transfer accompanied by an illuminating audio commentary and two entertaining featurettes that also were included with a deluxe DVD set released in 2007. The visual quality is generally crisp and strikingly clear, although nighttime scenes are still somewhat dicey in this low-budget black-and-white film.

Lifelong Godzilla fans Steve Ryfle (author of “Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of Godzilla”) and Ed Godziszewski (“The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla”) offer boatloads of insight into the background of “Gojira” director Ishiro Honda, who had witnessed first-hand the destruction inflicted by the American atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. They note that Honda’s message in “Gojira” wasn’t specifically anti-U.S., but unequivocally antinuclear, Gojira representing the unknown horrors that can be unleashed with the use of technology that humankind doesn’t fully understand.

They also point out that  U.S. studio officials who re-edited it — to make it more palatable for American audiences of the ’50s — always stated that there was no political agenda behind their choices of what to trim to make way for their added scenes. Yet, they consistently eliminated scenes in which the subject of H-bomb testing is debated by Japanese politicians, scientists, military officials and citizens. Separate mini-documentaries by Godziszewski about the development of the Gojira story and the creation of the suit used in the movie include intriguing details such as the Disney-like story boarding said to be a first in Japanese cinema.

Because those featurettes have been available previously, the biggest advantage in the Blu-ray edition may be the hi-res sound. From Gojira’s signature metallic roar to the ultra-low-register notes of the contrabass clarinet used in the musical theme that anticipates each of his destructive appearances, the audio track is all the more visceral through a good home sound system.

Even 55 years down the road, there’s still nothing quite like the roar of Gojira.

–Randy Lewis

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