03 December 2007

Choose your Astro-Monster

Oh, which version of Invasion of Astro-Monster shall I watch? This is a question for the ages, and I cannot find an adequate answer. So I guess I will have to watch them both.

The wonderful DVD format—which has done more to rescue obscure films and make them available to the public than any innovation in film history—came late to the aid of my favorite cult genre, the kaiju eiga. Otherwise known as the “Japanese giant monster film.” Anime and J-Horror are well represented on disc. There actually seem to be more anime available on DVD than actually exists, or at least that's the impression I get when I look at the enormous, densely-stocked anime section at my local video store. But the rubber-suited FX extravaganzas of model-mayhem have only recently gotten the respect they deserve on DVDs, featuring widescreen presentations and original Japanese cuts with subtitles.

Most of the DVDs offer English-dubbed versions as well as the Japanese originals. Although I don’t like to watch dubbed prints, I understand the need for them. Children love these films, and most of them can’t enjoy subtitling. I grew up on dubbed versions, and some of them still have nostalgia value, so I’m glad that the new crop of DVDs have made an effort to present both the Japanese original and a stateside dubbed released. (However, and this is a massive confusion that could make up a post in itself, some films have more than one English dub, and a recent trend has often released the inferior “international” dub on DVD rather than the more nostalgia-heavy one that the U.S. distributor created. Both Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster currently feature only the lesser international English versions on their DVDs.)

Invasion of Astro-Monster was released in Japan in December 1965. It was the fifth film to star Godzilla, and was one of Toho’s most ambitious science-fiction projects of the time. It received co-financing from the American production company UPA and had an American star, Nick Adams, but for reasons that have never been made clear it didn't appear stateside until 1970, when it was re-titled Monster Zero. This remains the best-known title in the U.S. When it debuted on home video, it was further re-titled to Godzilla vs. Monster Zero to help alphabetize it with the other Godzilla films on the shelves. The new DVD returns the film to its official English title, the strange but appropriately kooky Invasion of Astro-Monster. (Apparently, Astro-Monster destroys definite articles!)

I can’t defend the dubbed English version of Invasion of Astro-Monster. Compared to the superb job done of both previous Godzilla films, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Astro-Monster has a goofy and overdone looping job that makes the characters sound wildly hammy and unbelievable. The villainous Controller of Planet X has an adequate bad-guy voice, but all the other Japanese actors sound a bit like Gerry Anderson puppets.

But here’s the contradiction: you can’t get the full Astro-Monster experience without watching the U.S. dub as well as the Japanese one. The Japanese version, as superior all-around as it is (wow, dig that crazy performance that Yoshio Tsuchiya gives as the Controller of Planet X), lacks one thing the U.S. version has: Nick Adams speaking his own words. Co-star Adams read all of his lines in English on the set, and was dubbed with a Japanese actor for the domestic release. The U.S. version uses Adams’s original line performance, and he’s a hoot. He’s so quintessentially an American tough-guy that he adds a fascinating kick to the otherwise very Japanese proceedings. He has great chemistry with his two co-stars, sexy Kumi Mizuno and pal Akira Takarada, and it’s unfortunate that viewers lose half of these relationships in either cut. Watching the Japanese language version, I found myself repeatedly missing Adams’s key contribution, even as I was reveling in the fine performances from the rest of the cast, especially madman Tschuyia. (Tschuyia is a professed UFO follower and believer, which adds an interesting angle to his performance.)

So I’ll have to switch between the two versions of Invasion of Astro-Monster, because at the moment there is no other comprise. Perhaps audiences wouldn’t accept a film where Adams speaks in English and everyone else in subtitled Japanese, but I certainly would. The Japanese trailer for the movie shows what this might look like, and it doesn’t bother me at all. At least I have both versions on one DVD now.