Criterion // 1954 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 10th, 2012
King of the monsters!
Sure, he's inspired countless cheap, tacky sequels and at least two terrible remakes, but once upon a time, Godzilla was once the star of a respectable horror classic. For proof, look no further than the new Blu-ray of the 1954 Godzilla from Criterion, the first and last name in classic film.
Something is destroying fishing boats off the Japanese island of Odo, and one of the village elders suspects it's a mythical "sea god" known as "Godzilla. As the country's best scientists investigate, they discover that the old man was right after all: the country is under siege by an enormous destructive lizard monster, set free by a nuclear explosion. Can the monster be stopped before all of Japan is laid to waste?
From its opening frames, as ominous drums beat over stark black and white title cards, it's obvious that Godzilla is not your average giant monster movie. Though its reputation has been tarnished over the years by endless sequels and imitators, the original film (released as Gojira in Japan) remains a classic, not just of the giant monster movie genre but of Japanese cinema, too.
The film is much slower and talkier than you might recall. Our collective memory of the movie is simply of the giant monster stomping his way through Tokyo, breathing fire and laying waste to everything in his path. And, yes, there are at least two major set pieces in which Godzilla damages to several Japanese cities. But the movie is less concerned with the monster's attacks than with the consequences; it's about addressing the threat, dealing with what created it and preparing for more devastation. It is, essentially, about a country coming to terms with the A-bomb in the wake of Hiroshima, and it's as culturally personal a giant monster movie as one could ever hope to see. It's for that reason that while Godzilla was imitated a seemingly endless number of times, it was never matched -- there's simply too much of Japan's national identity at the time wrapped up in the movie, and that's what makes it so compelling. A film about a giant monster wreaking havoc can be fun, sure, but "fun" isn't a word that really applies to Godzilla. It's sad at times, positively grim at others (though much of that requires a reading beyond what is presented on screen). It is even moving in certain scenes, such as when a reporter faces certain death bravely not just because he is determined to provide information to the citizens of Japan, but because it is his time. It's so rare that a monster movie address how the victims face death; even more so in the 1950s. It's touches like this that make Godzilla so special.
And, of course, there is the monster. Time hasn't necessarily been kind to the original Godzilla, which was and always shall be a guy in a rubber suit. But there's something about the way that director Ishirô Honda shoots the monster that goes a long way towards disguising the limitations of the special effects. The first time Godzilla's revealed, we see nothing more than a head popping up from behind a hill or a mountain, but what makes it unique is that the scene takes place in bright daylight. The disconnect between the two is jarring at first, then becomes scarier and scarier the more one thinks about it -- we've become so accustomed to movie monsters being filmed and revealed in specific ways thanks to years of programming that it's thrilling to see a film disregard the rules, particularly when that film dates all the way back to the early 1950s. Throughout the remainder of the movie, the monster is shot mostly at night and underlit to mask many of the flaws. It's an effective approach and affords Godzilla a good deal of menace, though it's important to remember that, more than anything, the monster remains a metaphor in this version. Whether or not he's actually scary on screen (and he is, at times) is beside the point. It's what he represents that is scary.
God bless the Criterion Collection, a studio not only responsible for releasing the best quality versions of classic films like The Third Man and The 400 Blows, but for also taking a B-monster movie and elevating it to the status of "art" simply by virtue of the fact that they've put their label on it. Though it still looks its age and more than a little beat up in spots, this HD presentation is definitely the best Godzilla has ever looked. The AVC-encoded, 1080p transfer presents the movie in its original full frame aspect ratio, and the black and white image is very good even when it's rough in spots. Contrast is good and detail is strong throughout, even if some of the really dark scenes are nearly overpowered by grain. Several of the processed effects shots show a lot of scratches, but nothing that ruins the presentation -- in fact, it's many of those touches that add to the overall aesthetic. The LCPM mono audio track is both faithful to the source and satisfyingly clear, assisted by English subtitles for the Japanese film (the alternate American cut of the movie also features English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing).
The best bonus feature on the disc is an entire alternate cut of the movie, the U.S.-released Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The American version adds in new scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter following the monster attacks, but cuts out a lot of material from the Japanese film; even with the new footage, King of the Monsters runs only 81 minutes. The American cut moves much more quickly and certainly has its champions, but loses so much of the Japanese identity that makes the '54 film so fascinating. If nothing else, it provides an interesting counterpoint to the Japanese movie, and demonstrates that even in the mid-1950s, American studios were less interested in substance than in entertainment value.
Godzilla scholar David Kalat has recorded a new commentary track for the movie, which provides some valuable insights into the movie (and the Godzilla series as a whole) and places it in the political context of post-war Japan. Kalat also provides commentary for the American version of the film, which, again, makes for an interesting point of comparison between the two movies. Four interviews with cast and crew, all recorded in 2011, have also been included: actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, effects technicians Eizo Kaimai and Yoshio Irie and composer Akira Ifukube all comment on their experiences working on the landmark film. Japanese critic and scholar Tadao Sato is also interviewed on the film, offering several insights from a different cultural perspective that are unique from those found on the two Kalat commentaries. A short featurette, "Photographic Effects," covers some of the movie's visual effects and the various tricks that were used to show the giant monster stomping its way through Tokyo. Two trailers, one for each version of the movie, are also included, as is an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic J. Hoberman. Perhaps the most curious bonus feature is an audio essay by Gregory Pflugfelder chronicling the real-life fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which at least partially inspired Godzilla.
Monster movie fans who remember Godzilla by its legacy and who are expecting campy, rubber-suited fun will be surprised to revisit the original and discover what a thoughtful, haunting movie it can be. With its technical accomplishments and an impressive selection of bonus features, Criterion's Blu-ray of Godzilla goes a long way towards placing the movie in the proper historical context and restoring its reputation as a true classic. Well done.
Hail to the king, baby.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Cut