Criterion pays long overdue scholarly homage to one of the classic monsters in all of cinema, and the inclusion of both the original 1954 Japanese film and the laughable 1956 American "reworking" only reinforces the fact that you have not seen Godzilla until you have seen Ishiro Honda's somber cautionary tale of H-bomb testing and the giant monster destruction it awakens.
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: A
A mere nine years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima Toho director Ishiro Honda launched Godzilla on an unsuspecting Japanese populace in 1954, a grand bit of now familiar giant monster theater that was really just a thin veil for a parable about the fear of H-bomb testing and the hell that can be unleashed in its wake. For all the mass destruction on display in Godzilla Honda's film is ultimately a message of hope, a hope that man has learned to control its own fragile future a little better. In the story - penned by Honda and Takeo Murata - it is underwater hydrogen bomb testing that releases the 165-foot tall lizard from some underground cave off the coast of Japan, and when one character describes the beast as having been "baptized in the fires of the H-bomb" the link between man's actions and the fates of millions becomes evident.
I'm a child of the 1960s, born and raised on late night horror movies in the days before VHS, Laserdisc or DVD.
Those of us nurtured on the 1956 Terry Morse reworking of Honda's original film - known to U.S. audiences as Godzilla, King of the Monsters - have sadly been force fed a terrible sack of crap all these years. Sure, it made Godzilla a household name and thrilled monster fans for decades, but in hindsight Morse's sloppy recut is a storytelling mess. The American Morse version, which is thankfully included on this disc, is comical to the point of absurdity by comparison and the uneven inserts with Raymond Burr are tacked onto a completely rejiggered narrative that carries none of the original film's thematic impact. In Honda's vision we are given characters - admittedly plucked from a variation of the stock character tree - that rise above their one-dimensional limitations, to the point that by the time eye-patched scientist Serazawa (Akihiko Hirata) makes the ultimate sacrifice we the viewer are left with a genuine sense of loss.
Cynics can scoff at the miniatures in use here as cheesy high camp, but there's an odd charm to the amalgam of matte painting, man-in-rubber-suit and balsa wood buildings. Even as one of the Godzilla faithful it is not important whether or not I can suspend the correct level of disbelief to accept that those toy fire trucks are supposed to be real, because I am already immersed in the story, in the panic and in the sense of helplessness. Ishiro Honda's Godzilla - enveloped in that regally haunting Akira Ifukube score - is actually a tragic and bleak monster movie, one where wholesale destruction is rampant and flaming cities are left in ruin. The quasi science required to give the story a fitting ending is the film's weak link, but one that is necessary to bring about some sort of closure.
As a franchise Godzilla was a lucrative and prolific one, but none of the followups - which became less cohesive and more bizarre - could ever come close to the sheer magnitude of that first glimpse of a giant lizard wreaking havoc on coastal Japan. I can only imagine how terrifying Honda's Godzilla was to Japanese audiences in 1954. It had to be like reopening a fresh wound, one that could really never heal.
One look at the sketchy condition of the theatrical Godzilla trailers included on this disc will immediately prove just how beautiful this remastered 1080p AVC-encoded 1.37:1 transfer really is. The night scenes have undergone the most significant improvements, and gone are the thick, muddy blacks I remember and instead we are finally able to see - with great detail - facial expressions, monster-induced action, the matte work and all of those wonderful miniatures. Contrast levels have been given a big boost, as well, with daylight sequences appearing particularly clean. There are some age-related issues that remain - occasional flicker and the odd scratch or nick - but overall this an impressive treatment of Honda's film. As a side note, the Terry Morse "Americanized" version has also undergone a restoration, and is presented in AVC-encoded 1080p.
Audio is presented in the original Japanese, via a 1.0 LPCM uncompressed mono track. There may not be a lot of wiggle room for fidelity theatrics here, but elements such as that memorable Akira Ifukube score and the roar of Godzilla are the breakouts, and when married with the boom-boom-boom that announces the big guy's arrival it is difficult to expect a vintage monoaural mix to deliver much more than it does here. Voice clarity is handled solidly, though little can be done to quell the occasional screech of squeaky-voiced Momoko Kochi.
Wow, there's a lot here. Let's start with the packaging, which has Criterion dispensing with their standard clear plastic case in favor of a sturdy side-open cardboard slipcase that houses a tri-fold inner case that when opened reveals a pop-up Godzilla head. Also inside is a 12-page insert booklet featuring an essay entitled Poetry After The A-Bomb in which Village Voice critic J. Hoberman discusses how "Godzilla transformed the trauma of war into fun - or art."
There are a pair of commentaries by film historian David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. Kalat provides separate commentaries for Honda's original as well as the Terry Morse version, and the self-described "Godzilla nut" is well-prepared and thoroughly entertaining. I have to say it was so refreshing - as longtime fan of Godzilla - to hear someone be so enthusiastic and scholarly about a film that many mistakenly consider just another genre title.
As I mentioned above the English-dubbed 1956 "Americanized" Godzilla, King of the Monsters (01h:20m:53s 1080p) - recut by Terry Morse and starring Raymond Burr - is also included. Considering this was the version that I was weaned on as a small child I unfortunately had no other frame of reference at the time. For decades and decades Morse's Burr-centric version was the be all end all, and by comparison now it's really just sad to see. One of the great thrills of this release is the ability to watch Honda's compelling original and THEN jump over to Morse's slice-and-dice operation that not only jumbled the narrative around in a million directions but is notable for the use of some comical back-of-the-head doubles for actors in the original so that they can interact with Burr via some sloppy English overdubs. To call King of the Monsters a horribly executed mistake is an understatement, yet Criterion's decision to include it here is to be applauded.
A set of cast and crew interviews from 2011 are included, consisting of actor Akira "Ogata" Takarada (12m:58s 1080i), Godzilla rubber suit actor Haruo Nakajima (09m:48s 1080i) and model/miniature builder Yoshio Irie paired with rubber monster suit designer Eizo Kaimai (30m:08s 1080i). An in-depth interview with Godzilla score composer Akira Ifukube (50m:43s 1080i) from 2000 is also included. All interviews are presented in Japanese with English subtitles.
A segment on Photographic Effects (09m:05s 1080i) features special effects director Koichi Kawakita and special effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka discussing the use of matte paintings, as well as displaying some unused test footage of the original film. Japanese film critic Tadao Sato (14m:04s 1080i) contributes an intelligent examination of Godzilla and its influence on Japanese culture, recorded in 2011. As with the cast/crew content, these segments are presented in Japanese with English subs.
Lastly there is The Unluckiest Dragon (09m:38s 1080i) an audio essay narrated by historian Greg Pflugfelder analyzing a real-life event that occurred to the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru, and how that tragedy served as a ripped-from-the-headlines sense of urgency for the film Godzilla. Also provided are trailers for both the Honda and Morse versions of the film.