Godzilla, King Of The Monsters

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters (1956)
Extras: Photo gallery, Trivia, Trailers, Screensavers

Godzilla is experiencing a huge revival these days, especially with the introduction of Roland Emmerich’s new incarnation of the legendary kaiju the Japanese term for giant monster. Godzilla has appeared in an impressively large array of 22 Japanese movies, spanning the decades – from its first appearance in 1954 to the mid 1990s. Simitar have now released five of the early Godzilla movies all directed by the series’ original director, Ishiro Honda on DVD, with re-mastered transfers and <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio tracks. The first one, the one that started it all, was "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters", and as the title already suggested at the time, this movie tried to claim the throne of all monster movies and succeeded in doing so. Without a doubt, Godzilla is one of most recognized and "undying" monsters the film industry has ever seen.

The plot of "Godzilla" is pretty simple and without much twaddle. Ships are attacked by a vicious creature at night, destroying the vessels, hardly leaving anyone alive. The few who do survive tell stories about a huge prehistoric creature that rose from the sea and call it Godzilla Gojira in the Japanese original. Godzilla is a creature mutated by the effects of radioactivity from atomic bombs and grown to enormous proportions. With its radioactive breath, it destroys and melts everything in its way. Shortly after the first sightings, the monster heads towards Tokyo. Nothing can stop this hostile creature. In no time it stomps through the city, leaving behind nothing but devastated ruins and shattered lives. No weapons seem to harm the creature, and the only hope is pinned on Dr. Serizawa, a moody scientist, who invented the "Oxygen Destroyer", a weapon that destroys any kind of life but what if this powerful weapon falls into the wrong hands?

I was completely surprised to find that Simitar decided to release the weirdly re-edited US version of this classic movie. When making its debut in the US in 1956, the movie was completely reworked for American audiences. New scenes with actor Raymond Burr that had nothing to do with the original film were shot at the time and inserted. These crude cuts don’t do the original movie any justice and, indeed, weakened the overall film substantially, ironically cutting its running length back from 97 to a mere 79 minutes. The movie’s overall tone was changed by it, as most of the story was suddenly pervaded with plenty of emotionless narration by Burr. It made the localization of the movie easier, since it pretty much eliminated the need to translate or dub any of the Japanese dialog for that matter. It also allowed the American editors to shuffle around certain scenes without having to fear people would notice the continuity gaps in the dialogues. Since the whole re-editing was done so ineptly, it actually enhances the movie’s fun factor and makes it even more enjoyable to watch. What’s even more fascinating is that Toho, the studio responsible for the original movie, later released the American version in Japan as well, while the unedited, subtitled Japanese version surfaced in American theaters in the early 80’s.

Despite the ridiculousness of the movie seen from today’s perspective, "Godzilla" had a very serious note when it was released in 1954, part of what made it such a classic. It is clearly a creation of the Japanese society of the 50s, painting a metaphor for the wounds inflicted on Japan by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the World War II holocaust this country had just suffered. Godzilla represented all their fears and all their hopes. By defeating the monster, they defeated their fear; it became representative for a nation that overcame complete destruction by focusing and rebuilding it. It is therefore hardly surprising to find that the movie takes itself quite seriously, a fact that drastically changed with the upcoming sequels.

Unlike the modern day resurrection of the monster, the original movies relied solely on miniature model shots as well as actors in rubber suits. Undoubtedly this accounts for a large part of the charm of these movies. It’s just plain fun to watch an actor Haruo Nakajima in these early movies wear a 300-pound monster suit, having the time of his life, stomping on models of Tokyo, destroying everything in sight. The way Nakajima portrayed the creature gave it a lot of fierce personality and charm, creating an unforgettable monster, one that at the same time was quite sympathetic. Nakajima, by the way, played Godzilla in more than 12 movies and also gave life to countless other giant monsters until his retirement in 1972.

Simitar’s "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters" DVD contains a <$PS,full frame> <$OpenMatte,open matte> version of the movie and a soft-matted <$PS,letterboxed> version that also restores the movie’s original 1.37:1aspect ratio. Even though the transfer of the film exhibits speckles and scratches especially in the original Japanese scenes the overall film transfer quality seems to be quite good. Sadly the MPEG-2 compression for the DVD isn’t. The disc’s image exhibits severe compression artifacts in the form of macroblocks and mosquitoes, resulting in an overall image that seems even grainier than the original material seems to have been. Because the movie is in black and white, this is definitely less distracting than it would be in color movies, but still, there is no justification for why this kind of obviously sloppy encoding has made it to market, no matter what the price of the disc is.

The disc also contains a new, digitally remastered <$5.1,5.1 channel> Dolby Digital soundtrack, as well as the original monaural soundtrack in 2.0 channel Dolby Digital. Since the <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack was non-existent in the original movie, it had to be remixed from separate existing audio elements. This results in a bit of a mixed bag that may cause quite some controversy amongst movie watchers. Purists think that it is downright wrong to mess with the original material, while many other people will definitely appreciate an updated soundtrack using current technologies. It is very hard to cleanly extract audio elements from mono soundtracks to create new multi-channel tracks, so don’t expect miracles… but still, the new soundtrack is nice, and having a movie like "Godzilla" with surrounds is a nice touch, although it is different from what the original filmmakers created. Since Simitar have released five selected movies of the series, "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters", "Godzilla Versus Mothra", "Godzilla Versus Monster Zero", "Godzilla’s Revenge" and "Terror Of Mechagodzilla", a very brief look at the other discs would be in place, too, I believe.

All these movies have received new transfers and with the exception of "Terror of Mechagodzilla" all of them have both the movie’s <$PS,letterboxed> and <$PS,fullscreen> versions on each disc. Strangely these transfers seem to be taken from completely different film prints, since they vary slightly. Oddly, also the chapter stops are slightly different in the <$PS,widescreen> version as compared to the <$PS,fullscreen> version of the films. Just like "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters", sadly all of the other discs exhibit serious compression artifacts as well. Since these movies are in color, the visual distractions caused by the artifacts is pronounced. All the discs contain 5.1channel Dolby Digital remastered soundtracks as well as the movies’ original monaural soundtracks. The discs come with plenty of bonus materials, some of which are accessible through PC DVD-ROM drives only. They all contain a Godzilla video art gallery, a good selection of very atmospheric still images of the creature from different movies and eras. A trailer collection for all five movies can also be found on each disc, as well as production notes and an entertaining trivia game that is different on each of the discs. If you own a DVD-ROM drive in your PC, you will also have access to 4 different full screen, full motion screen-savers, a printable Godzilla photo gallery, art gallery, and direct access to Simitar’s website.

Even though the image quality of the discs leaves something to be desired, I think these discs are well worth recommending. The Godzilla movies have become such classic pieces of our culture that it is very hard to get around them once you enter the area of monster movies. They are wildly entertaining and were done with a lot of attention to detail and skill for the time, making them charming testimonies of an era of movie magic long gone. Of course, it would have been nice had these valuable movies transferred to DVD with more affection and higher quality standards, but still, I take these DVDs over my old VHS tapes any day, especially since the discs restore the movies’ original aspect ratios.