The blurbs on the back of a book are usually full of effusive praise, attempting to persuade potential readers to purchase said book. Sometimes the book doesn’t live up to that effusive praise. However, in the case of Kalat’s A CRITICAL HISTORY AND FILMOGRAPHY OF TOHO’S GODZILLA SERIES, the blurbs are accurate: “Impressive production notes...scholarship is commendable,” “Definitive...highly recommended,” and “The ultimate word on the series.”
I suppose I could just tell you this is a great book and stop the review right here. But then what would I do with the rest of my afternoon?
More than a fan, David Kalat is a film historian with an interest in preserving and distributing classic and obscure motion pictures. Non-believers may scoff, but this book is good enough to serve as an academic textbook in a university film making class. In addition to featuring well-written, well-organized text, it includes extensive footnotes, an impressive bibliography, and (gasp!) an index where you can actually find people, places, and things you are looking for. Kalat treats Godzilla films like, well, like films instead of just movies. With a hint of indignation he points out in the introduction, “Many of the things American audiences laugh at in Godzilla movies... are not the work of the Japanese producers, but alterations added by American distributors.” Well, yes, we fans know this, but Kalat further makes his point by saying, “Would Casablanca be as satisfying if Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Berman, and Peter Lorre’s voices were dubbed by unknown, possibly amateur actors? Would Star Wars be a blockbuster if the music were replaced, the special effects re-edited, the story changed to remove subplots, and Alec Guinness’s lines dubbed in a squeaky, cartoonlike voice?” This is undoubtedly the best comparison I’ve ever read and a rebuff I plan to use the next time I get an eye-rolling response to my favorite hobby.
The book is divided into four parts, roughly along timelines, although as Kalat notes, Godzilla’s chronology isn’t as tidy as one might desire. There is an entire chapter devoted to each Godzilla film. Moreover, Kalat does what many authors writing about Godzilla fail to do: he gives a nice-sized chapter each to Rodan and Mothra, and a shorter chapter to discussion of King Kong and its influence on Godzilla. Additional chapters provide detailed information on the editing and dubbing processes, Tsuburaya Enterprises, the evolution of Godzilla during the ‘70s from menacing beast to friendly neighborhood heroic figure, the winding down of the Showa Series, resurrection of Godzilla in the Heisei Series, and the ill-starred efforts of Tri-Star to develop an American version of Godzilla, which was just coming to fruition with Emmerich and Devlin taking over the project as Kalat’s book went to press.
A CRITICAL HISTORY AND FILMOGRAPHY OF TOHO’S GODZILLA SERIES has by far the most complete film information in any Godzilla-related book I have seen. There are extensive production credits and casting info, including which actors wear the monster suits, a not-so-minor detail overlooked by some authors. The synopsis of each film is given a full treatment, including subplots. Following each synopsis is a detailed critique that discusses the production techniques, the score, and the film’s reception in Japan and the West.
When I’m watching a Godzilla film and I can’t recall the name of a Japanese actor in a minor part or some other minutiae, Kalat’s book has become my go-to resource. Since my copy is a paperback, I think I need to apply some self-adhering laminate sheets to the front and back covers or I’ll soon be looking for a new copy!
Bottom line: the most serious and scholarly work on Godzilla that’s out there, but still a very entertaining book.
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