It seems odd to imagine it now, but Godzilla used to be really scary.
This was a long time ago, of course -- more than fifty years ago, when the big green guy was a muddy gray, and Japan was still recovering from the devastation of World War II.
The monster was called "Gojira" back then, the original Japanese name; the producers came up with it by combining the words for "gorilla" and "whale," to designate something truly massive and threatening. And he was plenty threatening, in the original conception: A rampaging, terrifying beast unleashed on a traumatized nation with no apparent purpose or objective other than mass destruction.
Of course, the Americans screwed it up, butchering Ishiro Honda's moody study of national crisis by yanking out nearly half an hour of footage and replacing it with new material designed to make the story intelligible to Westerners, with Raymond Burr guiding us through the story as a crusading journalist named Steve Martin. That version -- titled "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" -- doesn't exactly do the big guy proud.
It took nearly half a century for the original version to reach North America, and another two years for it to emerge on DVD, but it's finally here, in a lovely double-disc set produced with the co-operation of Toho Studios.
Both versions of the film are included, but "Gojira" is the one that truly shines; transferred from a new hi-def master, with newly created English subtitles, it will play as a revelation to anyone who grew up on the Godzilla movies of the 1960s and 1970s. The monster doesn't wrestle, or wink at the audience; he simply moves through the landscape like a force of nature, implacable and alien, while Akira Ifukube's percussive score drivesnotes of fear into your spinal column.
Extras include an appreciative audio commentary by Steve Ryfle, author of the Godzilla appreciation "Japan's Favorite Mon-Star," and Ed Godziszewski, editor of "Japanese Giants" magazine; there's also a pair of production featurettes focusing on the movie's conceptual development, and the creation of Eiji Tsuburaya's magnificent monster suit.
"Godzilla, King of the Monsters" is included on the second disc, and while you probably won't want to bother with it after experiencing "Gojira," it's still worth playing for Ryfle and Godziszewski's second audio commentary of the package, which discusses the extensive re-editing job and includes archival interviews with the producers of the American version.
A spiffy retrospective booklet, and an apparently rare American "Godzilla" trailer, round out the package.
STUDIO:Sony Wonder/Classic Media
RELEASE DATE:Available now
TIME: 96 minutes (Japanese version)/81 minutes (American version)
DVD EXTRAS:English subtitles; audio commentaries; production featurettes; theatrical trailer.