An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 14, 2008, 7:00 PM EDT

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 14, 2008, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

It’s gotta be pro-Godzilla prejudice. That’s the only fathomable reason that Classic Media, which did such an incredible supplemental job with its past Big G DVDs, has, with one very notable exception, skimped on the extras with this pair of Toho epics. Surely, 1956’s Rodan and 1966’s War of the Gargantuas are iconic enough to warrant the commentaries, still galleries, etc. that made those previous releases such must-haves, but are absent in this two-disc set. At least the physical packaging is still up to the series’ spiffy standards.

And the one bonus feature you do get is easily worth the purchase price, even beyond the first-time opportunity to view both the Japanese and American-language editions of the movies. Bringing Godzilla Down to Size, a 68-minute documentary directed by Norman England (who—full disclosure—is Fango’s Japanese correspondent) and written/produced by Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle (responsible for several past Classic Media/Godzilla goodies) is a marvelous celebration of the people who made not only the monsters for Toho Studios, but the cities the behemoths smashed. Interviews with well over a dozen new- and old-guard filmmakers and actors, countless imaginatively presented still photos and copious new video footage chart a history of a screen trend that began with deep ties to its country’s postwar situation and soon broke out to make a unique and indelible mark on genre-movie history.

The legendary Eiji Tsuburaya is, of course, venerated here, as his contributions to both early Japanese cinema and the kaiju features that made his fame are noted. Tsuburaya may be gone, but several of his contemporaries are still with us and appear before England’s camera, most significantly art director Yasuyuki Inoue, one of the most unsung contributors to Godzilla and co.’s legend. It was Inoue and his team who put together the detailed buildings and landscapes that the monsters tore apart over the course of several decades—perhaps the ultimate case of artisans painstakingly toiling on creations expressly intended for destruction. (Not that the fun of that demolition goes unacknowledged, as Godzilla: GMK director Shusuke Kaneko observes, “It’s fun to destroy an intricately built set!”) Inoue and several longtime associates recall the care and joys of their craft here, and as a bonus, they even recreate an underwater-volcano effect from 1969’s Latitude Zero in his home workshop.

Just as noteworthy are appearances by Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma and Tsutomu “Tom” Kitagawa, the three men who gave Godzilla his personality from within the heavy rubber suits. It’s entertaining enough to hear their recollections of both the challenges of this singular job and the occasional mistakes that took place on assorted shoots, but Japanfans will smile a mile wide when the three are seen stalking together down a Tokyo street, each demonstrating his particular Godzilla walk. Those devotees may also mist up a bit as the later section of Bringing Godzilla Down to Size chronicles the sad but inevitable decline of live-action FX due to the advance of CGI—and they’ll likely want to offer thanks to England and his collaborators for this chronicle of and elegy for an art form that deserves just such a video preservation before it’s lost forever.

As such, the docu is well-placed in this disc set, as the long-in-coming urban trashing sequences are highlights of both Rodan and Gargantuas. The movies also have in common a more horrific bent than most of their Toho stablemates; the Gargantuas are the studio’s rare beasts that are actually seen eating people, while Rodan begins as a moody chiller in which mutilated bodies have been turning up in the tunnels beneath a rural mining town. At first, a worker who had a beef with the first victim is the prime suspect, but the culprits turn out to be oversized prehistoric dragonfly nymphs (“Meganulons”) whose appearances presage that of the huge titular pterodactyl. Or actually two, as the first flying monster, which initially takes out planes and causes major damage with its sonic-boom-inducing speed and windstorm-creating wings, is eventually joined by a mate that joins it for a ground assault.

The Rodans are serviceable city-smashers, more impressive when wiping out those miniature buildings than when soaring stiffly through the skies, but lacking the personality of Godzilla and some of his other contemporaries. The transition from the personal terror and drama in the village to the bigger-scale scenario of the Rodans’ reign of terror is handled gracefully enough by director Ishiro Honda and scripters Takeshi Kimura and Takeo Murata, though miner hero Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) winds up lost in the shuffle as military and scientific types become more significant to the story. Less noteworthy, in the end, as a film than as the introduction to one of Toho’s seminal critters, Rodan is nonetheless a more than watchable romp with several memorable moments.

This analysis, by the way, applies only to the 82-minute Japanese edition; the American cut, which runs a full 10 minutes shorter, never gives the story room to breathe. Numerous early scenes are chopped or condensed, and many quiet moments are papered over with stock music and endless on-the-nose narration by Keye Luke, who speaks in English for Shigeru. (Several of the supporting voices were dubbed by Paul Frees, who applies his Boris Badenov accent to one role.) Additional Rodan screeches are added to shots where the creature doesn’t open its mouth, and a montage of grainy H-bomb-testing footage is inserted into the first reel. That runs counter to the original version, in which nuclear weapons are only briefly brought up late in the game as a possible explanation for the Rodans’ revival, which for the most part is blamed on a geographical “diastrophism,” with an anachronistic reference to global warming in the subtitles. Just to seal the deal, the J-cut looks better too, with richer colors; both are properly presented in fullscreen.

While not as badly altered, the 92-minute American version of Gargantuas differs significantly from the nearly 88-minute Japanese edition by virtue of its dialogue. The movie centers on a pair of towering, furry humanoids that were conceived as offspring of the monster in Toho’s previous Frankenstein Conquers the World, with numerous mentions of the Big F in the characters’ conversations in the latter cut. Otherwise, the story plays out the same: The green Gargantua (a.k.a. Gaira) causes all sorts of monstrous mischief, and just when the armed forces seem to have the drop on him, he’s rescued by his brown brother (a.k.a. Sanda). It’s not long, though, before the two develop a serious difference of opinion regarding whether humans and their dwellings should be stepped on, leading to a big brawl and a finale that’s quite similar to that of Rodan.

For the U.S., the Frankenstein references were eliminated in the dub track and slightly more prominence is given to an American scientist played by Russ Tamblyn, who walks through his scenes with a too-cool-for-the-room attitude while delivering (improvising?) some of the most godawful exposition and quips ever heard in a movie of this type. But he’s not the only one; the English-spoken Gargantuas is rife with gems like this one from an army official, proposing the use of napalm to battle the beasts: “It’ll burn the oxygen out of the air, and then they’ll suffocate!” Tamblyn frequently seems to be moving his lips as little as possible, perhaps to facilitate the Japanese dubbing.

As subtitled here, those lines are more tolerable, and that version would easily be the preferable option were it not for the comparative transfer qualities. Both are in full widescreen, but the Japanese-language one contains a number of sections that are overly dark to the point of being indistinct. Longtime fans will be happy to know, however, that the brain-fryingly dreadful song number “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat”—which probably has as much to do with Gargantuas’ cult status as anything Sanda and Gaira get up to—is loud and clear in English whichever way you watch the film.