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Release Date(s)1954 (January 24, 2012)
Studio(s)Toho Company, Ltd. (Criterion - Spine #594)
I’m a Godzilla nut. Simply love him. It all harkens back to my days as a wee child growing up in New York. Every Thanksgiving, the local TV channel had Godzilla and King Kong marathons. It was awesome. So for me, Godzilla is a throwback to a better time and a keystone in my appreciation of world cinema; he occupies something of a tender spot in my heart. I don’t look at Godzilla with the same critical eye as I might other films of his genre because, well, because. Suffice to say, the first Godzilla film is a slightly different beast from the all other Godzilla films. It doesn’t have the same joy because Godzilla in this film is the “bad guy” or at least, the misunderstood monster who is just too big and clumsy to live with us tiny human in harmony. The original Godzilla is more “film” than the other films in the series. I mean to say, it tried to be something more. And, for all intents and purposes, it succeeded greatly.
Godzilla, as you will come to find exploring the special features of this disc, is about many things. And those things are incredibly interesting and worth exploring. But the kid in me doesn’t care. Godzilla is about a giant dinosaur who is awakened and comes stomping across Japan. He has radioactive breath that can melt power pylons and feet that can collapse a building no problem. It’s also about Dr. Yamane (Ikiru’s Takashi Shimura), a scientist who is fighting the system – he wants to capture Godzilla, to study this one-of-a-kind monster and learn from it. He feels that mankind made it, or at least freed it, and we owe it something to understand it. It’s also about Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) – a scientist who accidentally created a weapon that may save the day – but to show it to the world opens up his creation to people who would use it for all the wrong reasons. Director Ishirô Honda weaves all of these stories into one truly entertaining film, making a movie that appeals to kids, with elements for adults and enough allegory to feed the scholars out there. Godzilla is not quite a perfect film, but it is absolutely more than it appears to be.
You will note that I didn’t mention that Godzilla is also about a journalist (Raymond Burr) looking for a way to tell his epic story to benefit the world. That’s because that’s exclusively part of the International cut entitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters – which Criterion presents here as a special feature and not a focus (which is a good move). That version is very well done – and is in fact, the version I saw as a kid. But cinematically, it’s not even close a comparison to the original Japanese cut. The angst and motivations has been expertly cut away, making for a well-told exploitation film in the mold of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. To have both films on one set, is pretty sweet (and truth be told, the Classic Media DVD and re-released in 2009 Blu-ray entitled Gojira contains both versions, so having both on one set isn’t a coup. What is the coup is the remastered nature of both versions. But more on that below). If you half chalked Godzilla up as a silly monster movie, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Check it out. And if you love Godzilla, and haven’t seen this one because it’s in black and white – well, shame on you.
Godzilla finds a well-deserved home in the Criterion Collection in this nice and truly spiffy Blu-ray edition. Transferred at 1080p and displayed at 1.37:1, this version was pulled from a recently discovered 35mm fine-grain master pulled from the original negative – so, we’re going right to the source. The International version fares a little less, but looks just as good (pulled from a 35mm master from a 16mm dupe negative. All this is according to the thorough liner notes. Both prints were cleaned up digitally releasing scratches, dust specks and timing issues, making for a presentation as commentator David Kalat says, even better than it was when first released. The video presentation here is better than the stellar DVD Classic Media put out, but that goes without saying with the Criterion stamp. Audio is also top-tier. The “Gojira” main presentation is in Japanese LPCM 1.0, fully remastered from the original optical track. The International cut is in English, also in LPCM 1.0, remastered from a 35mm master positive. Both are very nicely cleaned-up and service the film quite well. Both show a bit of age and don’t have the density or playfulness that more modern audio tracks exhibit.
The supplemental features are a nice batch of fun. Of course, there is the already mentioned Godzilla, King of the Monsters cut of the film. But you’ll also find both versions feature commentary from Godzilla expert David Kalat who wrote one of the definitive books on Godzilla: A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. As with all Kalat tracks, he is reading his written notes and it’s a bit off-putting at first. But his enthusiasm, passion and super fan knowledge of everything from the behind-the-scenes, critical reception and legacy are all on display and make his stiff “performance” somewhat endearing at the end. Also on board, Criterion kicking up the standard cast and crew section with interviews of five members of the cast and crew: actor Akira Takarada, actor Haruo “Man In Suit!” Nakajima, miniatures builder Yoshio Irie, suit builder Eizo Kaimai and master composer Akira Ifukube (who clocks in at a whopping fifty-one minutes) discussing pretty much everything about his life, his philosophies and his work. There’s also a nice look at recently discovered trimmed test camera effects and compositing shots presented by effects director Koichi Kawakita and cameraman Motoyoshi Tomioka, an video essay by Tadao Sato discussing Godzilla and his legacy in Japan, a photo essay by Gregory M. Pflugfelder (Columbia University) focused on the Daigo Fukuryū Maru fishing boat (a.k.a. Lucky Dragon No. 5), which was exposed to fallout from an American nuclear test in 1954 and thus inspired the story on multiple levels. Finally, you’ll find a liner note booklet with an essay by J. Hoberman, trailers for Gojira and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and a very cool packaging surprise inside the insert case.
Godzilla is a great cinematic creation – and I’m over the moon Criterion chose to honor his first appearance. It’s sort of a movie award at the end of the day. This is a great presentation and a nice collection of extras to go along with it. Hopefully you give this one a spin and not turn your nose up to it. It’s a really deep film and this set helps you see all of those intricacies. Even if it’s just as a Halloween spin, do give it a try.
- Todd Doogan