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Savant Blu-ray Review

1954 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 98 min. / Street Date September 22, 2009 / 29.93
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
Cinematography Masao Tamai
Director Special Visual Effects Eiji Tsuburaya
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Ishirô Honda, Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Ishirô Honda

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Everyone's favorite aquatic behemoth makes his Region 1 Blu-ray debut this month, raising the hopes of American Kaiju fans. Last year we heard that the Toho Co. had remastered their entire inventory of Godzilla pictures to HD for release in Japan. Hopes were high that something new would show up in the HD format, as the original Gojira is in dire need of a thorough digital going-over.

The 1954 Gojira made its official American premiere five years ago on its 50th Anniversary; for all those decades we've been enjoying an adapted version that inserts actor Raymond Burr into what was originally an all-Japanese cast. Classic Media released a Deluxe Collector's Edition DVD in 2006 that was very well received.

Godzilla has weathered innumerable sequels as well as Sony's ill-fated 1998 remake attempt. Because his films quickly devolved into kiddie TV fodder badly dubbed into English, the fire-breathing aquatic monster has at times been more of an adolescent joke than a serious film subject. American fans began importing Japanese videos and subtitle-challenged Laserdiscs in the 1980s, leading to a growing interest in the original Japanese versions of these films. Heard in their original language, they played like real movies and often yielded unexpected added scenes and terrific original music tracks, sometimes in stereophonic sound. Latter-day Godzilla movies increased interest in the 'classics', and after years of disappointing gray-market videos we started seeing terrific licensed DVDs of great Japanese fantasy. Along with Classic Media's titles have come a number of exciting releases by Media Blasters in their "Tokyo Shock" series.

In its original form Gojira proved a real revelation, a thoughtful and sobering meditation on nuclear war made by the only country to suffer an atomic attack -- only nine years after that attack. The story begins as Japanese ships are sunk by a highly radioactive, unknown force. Searching for the cause, scientist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) travels to a tiny fishing island, there to be confronted by a colossal water dragon. It soon comes ashore to march through Tokyo, leaving a broad wake of utter destruction. Conventional weapons prove useless, which puts the eccentric Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) in a bind: he's invented a new weapon he calls an "Oxygen Destroyer" but refuses to deploy it on moral grounds. Serizawa's fiancée Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kôchi) begs the scientist to reconsider.

By now many Americans are quite aware that the original Gojira was a serious picture. Ishiro Honda's thriller revisits the still-fresh horror of WW2, when much of urban Japan was burned and blasted by long-range bombers. Faced by a radioactive monster from the ocean, Takashi Shimura's somber scientist behaves as if Japan were paying some terrible karmic debt through yet another ordeal by fire. Subway passengers lament the idea of going back into those smelly shelters again. And a war widow clutches her children as buildings crumble around them, crying, "We will be with daddy soon". It all plays like national masochism of the highest order.

Military might is useless but idealistic heroism is expressed in the operatic self-sacrifice of the lonely and mysterious Dr. Serizawa, an odd character pictured as an unnatural freak. He has a physical infirmity (the eye patch) like Rotwang of Metropolis that suggests an intense but limited vision. The décor in the doctor's 'mad lab' is reminiscent of Rotwang's elaborate electro-alchemy apparatus. Serizawa's obsession with his work has left him with little social sense or sex drive, and he watches impotently as the handsome Ogata (Akira Takarada) charms his fiancée Emiko right out from under his test tube.

Serizawa's scientist carries the same dubious moral burden that was heaped onto American scientists after the development of the bomb. Politicians are gregarious and military men are heroes, but scientists are shifty 'unknown quantities' that don't think as do you or I. Their inventions too often bring bad news. Serizawa doesn't want to repeat the error of his American counterparts by allowing his discovery's awful potential to be exploited for war. He keeps faith with his scientific responsibility by carrying out a morbid death pact.

The film implies that atomic scientists are traitors to mankind. That faulty judgment is based on the misapprehension that science professionals in any country exercise control over their work or what its eventual application might be. Participants in the Manhattan Project displayed a range of political beliefs that might be found in any group of intellectuals. Considered difficult to control, they were heavily investigated and asked to sign loyalty oaths.

Doctor Serizawa produces his miracle weapon alone in a brick basement lab. Few scientists would identify with this gothic Frankenstein figure. Serizawa's 'moral choice' is to take the Oxygen Destroyer with him to the grave, thereby withholding it from exploitation by evil men. Baloney. After the demo in Tokyo Bay, every nation with a University system would instantly assign a crack team to retrace Serizawa's research.

Gojira's outlandish contribution to 20th century mythology is to transform an abstract concept -- atomic anxiety -- into a physical force of nature. Gojira is an implacable atomic enemy, a mobile natural disaster, a typhoon in the form of a firestorm. The narrative is a refinement of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which the monster's nuclear origin is little more than a convenient gimmick. No explanation is given for Gojira's genesis, or why he wants to trample Tokyo into the mud. He just is. The film is aimed to shake the Japanese public from its mass denial, revealing an intimate horror that had been living with them for nine years.

Gojira came at a time of expansion at the Toho studio and was not a cheap picture. Eiji Tsuburaya's effects are all very good for the time, and many are excellent. The masterful direction of Ishiro Honda creates a nightmarish spectacle, a destructive juggernaut that crushes in slow strides. Akira Ifukube's score intensifies the dread with deep, slow themes for the monster and a grim march to represent Japan's futile defense. It's important to point out that Gojira victimizes the whole city and not just a select group of individuals. Although the Japanese kaiju identify selfless teamwork in the defense of the nation as the highest social virtue, when the monsters are defeated it is usually by individual effort and sacrifice.

Later Toho monsters concentrated more on spectacular thrills than anti-war statements. Rodan recounts the romantic "double suicide" of flying gods doomed to perish in volcanic fire. The Mysterians is a rallying call to repel conquering foreign influences. Mothra pits storybook magic against modern political exploitation. More than a few 'lowly' Japanese monster movies of the 50s and 60s display thematic riches that put the average science fiction extravaganza to shame.

Classic Media's Blu-ray of Gojira is a major disappointment that can't really be recommended. The HD encoding is interlaced (1080i) instead of progressive (1080p), which leads us to suspect that the source is the same used on the earlier standard def release -- billed as mastered in "Native Hi-Def".

Every comparison with the existing Deluxe Collector's Edition DVD makes that release seem a better purchase option. That disc's variable contrast and odd ghosting issues were undoubtedly in the tape element provided by Toho. The new Blu-ray looks identical except in the monster destruction scenes, which are timed much darker. Under these conditions the added resolution of HD adds nothing whatsoever to the visuals -- the Blu-ray looks like the standard DVD but with additional problems.

Gojira clearly needs a great deal of restoration work. The show's effects scenes are so dirty that one might think the negative was stored and printed in a Lint Factory. This schmutz was present even when the film was new, because in shots that double-print frames to achieve a slow motion effect, we can see that the same scratches persist over more than one film frame -- they're printed-in. Thousands of white speckles could be "manually" removed from the image, improving the picture considerably. But no amount of digital futzing could erase the countless fine dings and scratches in the film's emulsion without softening the image overall.

The new Blu-ray only makes these flaws seem worse. The technicians may have darkened the nighttime attack sequences in an effort to hide the scratches, but the blizzard of white speckles is still there, brighter than ever.

What's even more bothersome is the fact that the new Blu-ray contains only the original Japanese version of Gojira, whereas the Deluxe DVD included a second disc with the American Godzilla, King of the Monsters cut. The ability to compare the two was a major plus. Both films could easily have fit on one Blu-ray disc, but that would mean that someone would have to transfer the American cut in HD. That cinches the old Deluxe Edition DVD as the better value for purchase. It's not often that this reviewer recommends that a new release be skipped because it's not really improved; Classic Media really made an unwise choice with this one. Blu-ray fans paying steep prices for discs will rightfully feel cheated, especially if they have the earlier release.

The Blu-ray includes only the extras from Disc One of the deluxe edition. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski's excellent commentary is intact along with two featurettes from Godziszewski on the film's story development and the construction of the heavy-rubber Gojira costume. The Japanese trailer rounds out the package.

Savant has heard that newly remastered HD Godzilla films have been screened on Japanese televison. As a collector who once paid high prices for un-subtitled Japanese laserdiscs of favorite science fiction classics, I might do the same for certain Japanese Blu-rays if they really looked better.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gojira Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Fair
Sound: Good -
Supplements: Commentary, two featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 14, 2009

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the
2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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