Fifty years ago, Ishiro Honda directed a film with a star that no one could have predicted would become an international icon. Godzilla was born as a representation of the atomic bombings in Japan. Some people even believe that Godzilla is a stand-in for the United States as he crushes Tokyo under his girth. Regardless, he has since become a joke here in the US, and it all started right here with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) is a reporter for United World News. He lands in Tokyo for a layover and to visit with Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), an old college friend and one of the worlds leading scientific minds. A flurry of similar shipping incidents keeps him grounded, as the mystery is slowly unveiled. Japan is under attack by a radioactive monstrosity that cannot be stopped. The only hope of stopping it is Serizawa and a weapon he not only created, but also refuses to unleash unto the world.
Terry Morse took over the film when it was brought to the States, deleting 18-minutes from the original Japanese version and adding in new scenes with Raymond Burr. The Japanese characters so wonderfully crafted are pushed aside for Burr’s narration. Some of the scenes have been shuffled around and without subtitles or explanation; some of them now make no sense at all (why are people fighting at the press conference?).
The main human drama, a love triangle between Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa is cut down to a few brief scenes, lessening the impact of the final chapter. Numerous references to the H-Bomb have been deleted along with any mention to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Dubbing here is fair and handled with care, but the stand-in actors who interact with Burr are painfully obvious. Regardless of the cuts, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is still a great movie.
Then again, the film would do a fine job on it’s own in just about any form, making it easily one of the best giant monster films of all time. Special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya does a fantastic job of recreating Tokyo in miniature, making for some truly memorable moments during Godzilla’s final rampage. There are moments where the effects are laughable (I’ve always wondered what went wrong with the fire trucks), but the overall presentation is easily on par (if not better than) any American film of the era. Akira Ifukube provides the stunning film soundtrack, one of the most classic of all time. He also created the roar the monster still uses today. (**** out of *****)
“Godzilla: KOM” is available three times on DVD. The first release by Simitar is the only one with any real features and is long out of print. The second, unlicensed release came from Goodtimes and was pulled soon after it hit store shelves. Finally, Sony Classic Media distributed the version reviewed here. The disc is also available in an awful box set that includes more Godzilla films and “Rodan.” All of the films use poorly aged, pan and scan prints that do not do the film justice. Just stick with this disc and hunt down the somewhat valuable Simitar discs.
Anyway, Classic Media has produced the best-looking Godzilla DVD in the US so far. The print is still littered with scratches and dirt, but the clarity and contrast are superb. Where the previous two releases suffer from terrible compression problems, this version has none. Grain is only a minor issue in a few scenes. The film is usually on the dark side and the disc does a fine job keeping the mood the director was going for. Next to the Japanese disc of the original film, this is the best this movie has ever looked. (****)
Sadly, the sound presentation falters. All of the scenes directed by Terry Morse sound just fine with this Dolby Mono 2.0 presentation, coming through the speakers with no distortion. However, whenever the untouched Japanese sequences begin to play, the sound becomes flat and muffled. This sadly includes the soundtrack that is almost unrecognizable in a few spots. The difference is jarring and disappointing. Also included is a laughable Dolby 5.1 track that simply takes the mono presentation of the film and pumps it through all five speakers, creating an annoying echo effect. Skip it. (**)
The only extra included on the disc is a now outdated preview for the excellent Nintendo Gamecube game “Destroy All Monsters Melee.” Credit must be given here though for the excellent menus these discs use. The entire set has really nice intros when the disc is first loaded. (*)
If you have only seen the Americanized version of this movie, the time is right to track down a copy of the Japanese original. Rialto Pictures is currently showing a restored print in small theaters across the country. It’s possible we may get this version on DVD in a sort of Criterion edition at some point as well. You’ll be amazed at how much stronger the original is as a film. Until then, this is the best way to go for the American rendition. Shame about the sound presentation though.