dir. Ishiro Honda
1954 / Toho Co. ltd / 96′
written by Shigeru Kayama, Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata
director of photography Masao Tamai
music by Akira Ifukube
director of special effects Eiji Tsuburaya
starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Sachio Sakai, Katsumi Tezuka and Haruo Nakajima
Godzilla, along with Godzilla King of the Monsters!, is now available in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection
Unleashed upon an unsuspecting Japan to massive popular success in late fall of 1954, the original Godzilla was one of those rare perfect storms of cinema, a picture so tremendous in its impact that it ushered in not only a distinct new genre of Japanese film, but a bona fide pop culture revolution as well. It also touched a chord with a post-war Japan fresh from years of occupation, and finally allowed to openly discuss the full sum of its wartime experiences. Godzilla‘s considerable box office take all but ensured the long run of increasingly silly sequels that followed, and those familiar with those alone might be forgiven for expecting the same here, but the father of them all is an intelligent and at times downright cerebral affair, possessed of a raw power not seen in the genre since. Much more than just another monster movie, Godzilla is a spectacular public exorcism of the specters of World War II, and the tumultuous, emotional expression of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with its history as both a perpetrator and victim of incalculable wartime devastation.
The story, for those unfamiliar, begins with a series of dreadful shipping accidents off the coast of Japan, an investigation into which leads reporters and government officials to remote Odo Island, a sparsely populated speck of land near where the accidents occurred. There they find no answers beyond the superstitious ramblings of one of the island’s elders, who is convinced that the mythical Godzilla – a mysterious sea beast the Odo Islanders once sated with human sacrifice – is responsible for the maritime troubles. No one believes a word of it until something comes ashore one storm-torn evening, leveling several of the island’s residences and leaving a set of impossibly huge footprints in its wake.
A scientific expedition headed by noted zoologist Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura) is swiftly mounted to survey the destruction and investigate its cause. Once the scientists are on the island they make a series of surprising discoveries. The footprints left behind are intensely radioactive, and the area around them dangerously contaminated. What’s more, they’re littered with ancient sediments and the remnants of primitive life long thought extinct, leading Dr. Yamane and his team to the conclude that the impressions were made by something straight out of prehistory. It isn’t long before more conclusive evidence arrives in the form of a mountainous Jurassic-age monster, the Godzilla of legend, who has his sights set on Japan’s thriving metropolitan heart – Tokyo.
Co-written by director Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata (Rodan) from an original story by Shigeru Kayama (which he also novelized), the basics of Godzilla‘s narrative development are pretty traditional, writ large, the origins for the monster having been freely adapted from elements of the classic King Kong (an island, a legend, talk of human sacrifice) and the contemporary The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (about a prehistoric monster roused from its icy slumbers by an atomic test in the Arctic). Indeed, the idea of a dinosaur wreaking havoc on modern civilization was nothing new in 1954, having been seen previously in the silent The Lost World, Max Fleischer’s Superman short The Arctic Giant, as well as in Godzilla‘s most direct inspiration, the aforementioned Beast. The difference, as ever, is in the details.
Under the creative auspices of Honda, Kayama, Murata, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and even composer Akira Ifukube1, Godzilla‘s eponymous monster becomes one of the most singularly loaded metaphors in cinema history. Through references, both overt and subliminal, to such events as the irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru by the Castle Bravo H-bomb test, the fall of radioactive rain resulting from Soviet atomic tests, the firebombing of Tokyo and the A-bombing of Nagasaki, Godzilla becomes a fearsome and direct manifestation both of the horrors of World War II and the new and frightening realities of the Atomic Age. The monster’s steady, methodical destruction of modern Tokyo is a sequence unlike anything before it. Godzilla advances with the unrelenting force of an atomic blast, sending whole blocks crumbling into smoldering rubble and engulfing the city’s skyline in a curtain of nuclear flame. Dialogue clarifies whatever doubts may be lingering as to the rampage’s symbolic significance - “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head…“
In Godzilla’s wake millions lie dead or dying, both of physical injuries and radioactive contamination, while countless traumatized survivors wonder what terrors are yet to come. The imagery here – endless corridors filled with the wounded and an entire city reduced to wasteland – is potent, and evocative not only of the haunting aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of the wartime razing of Tokyo as well. Even Godzilla himself is granted a history of victimization, with Dr. Yamane insinuating that, much like Japan’s A-bomb survivors, the creature is traumatized by its recent brush with American nuclear might. “Don’t shine searchlights on Godzilla!” he gravely begs of a military officer, fearful that they might remind of the blinding flash that tore him from his deep sea niche and send the monster into a deeper rage. Of course Godzilla is not just a victim, but an aggressor as well, and the vision of a dragon rising from the Pacific alludes strongly to the ugly flip side of Japan’s wartime misfortune – the fact that through their own militant nationalism, and the brutal campaign of conquest that resulted from it, they had brought that misfortune upon themselves.
To that end the central dramatic conflict of the film might be viewed as an allusion to the position of the Allied forces during the war. Godzilla, awakened by the H-bomb and impervious to all modern munitions, seems unstoppable, but a brilliant young scientist – Dr. Serizawa (a convincing young Akihiko Hirata) – may have found an answer. The problem? His discovery has such immense destructive potential that any use of it, however good the cause, could prove catastrophic. It’s a narrative development that dramatically echoes the creation and eventual use of the Atom bomb in the final days of World War II, and that implies a certain understanding by Honda and his crew of the position of the Allied forces at the time. With a marauding force like the Imperial Japanese at large, do you set aside your most powerful weapon for fear of the horrific consequences of its use, or do you use it in spite of them? What the Allies decided is history, and their decision is paralleled by that of Dr. Serizawa – the result is that Godzilla is stopped, though at a tremendous cost. Another elemental force, as horrifying as the H-bomb, has been let loose in the world, and the film concludes with a grave Dr. Yamane wondering what other Godzillas might be unleashed as a result.
In terms of drama Godzilla has certainly aged in the decades since it was made, and a forgettable love triangle between Toho’s brightest young stars (top-billed Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata) will be of minimal interest to modern viewers, but the complex substance of the thing remains, its power undiminished over the near-60 years since it was fresh. Godzilla is perhaps the best of its kind ever made, the ultimate, indelible atomic monster experience and the birthplace of an unlikely pop-culture icon. It’s must-see material, folks, and that’s all there is too it.
1 Some of Ifukube’s cues for the film, both the elegiac pieces set to Godzilla’s aftermath and demise and the descending motif that accompanies the earlier ship disasters, are highly evocative (and in the latter case a direct adaptation) of his past work on Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima (a somber, thoughtful film about the human toll of the Hiroshima bombing), an allusion that only further cements Godzilla‘s connection to World War II and the burgeoning Atomic Age.
released January 24, 2012 by the Criterion Collection
disc: dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | AVC | 1.37:1
audio: LPCM 1.0 Japanese
supplements: commentary track with David Kalat, interviews (star Akira Takarada, suit actor Haruo Nakajima, effects men Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, composer Akira Ifukube, critic Tadao Sato), composite test footage, The Unluckiest Dragon illustrated audio essay, theatrical trailer and Godzilla King of the Monsters! (also featuring a David Kalat commentary and theatrical trailer)
retail price: $39.95
Available now from Amazon.com, and also available on 2-disc DVD
The Criterion Collection has certainly started the year off right, getting one of their most anticipated releases of 2012 onto store shelves right from the start. A few niggling video issues may keep their high definition presentation of Godzilla from being the end-all be-all of the format, but compared to what’s come before (an awful edition from Classic Media and a dull, over-processed alternative from Toho itself) it’s a revelation. Those simply wondering as to whether or not their Blu-ray is worth the price of admission need read no further – of course it is, so get out there and buy it you fools!
The thorn in Godzilla‘s side is just a case of Criterion cramming too much stuff (and there’s a lot!) onto one disc – this really should have been a 2-disc Blu-ray, a la the simultaneously released 2-disc Criterion dvd, and the video presentation suffers a bit for it in the form of artifacting. The AVC-encoded video for Godzilla, running a modest average bitrate of 23.5 Mbps, does well by the majority of the show, but moments of flatter contrast and more ambiguous detail (like the underwater finale) present with notable, if not exactly damning, grain artifacts.
Otherwise I’ve nothing to complain about with this 1080p presentation, which Criterion have sourced fresh from a fine-grain 35mm master positive (the original negative for Godzilla is long gone) with excellent results. Detail improves handily over past editions, finally appearing at a level in keeping with the show’s 35mm photography, and contrast is dead-on. The usual limitations associated with Godzilla are all here, including some flicker and an assortment of damage, but Criterion’s work to clean up the material will be obvious to anyone familiar with past iterations. There’s a lot of obtrusive, large-scale damage I’m used to seeing that just isn’t here, and Criterion have struck their usual attractive balance between cleanliness and source authenticity. It may not be pristine (given the state of surviving elements it was never going to be – the first three Godzilla films are all in rather dire condition, with King Kong vs. Godzilla evidently having no usable 35mm elements at all for some scenes), but for the first time ever the film looks as good as it rightly should. This gave me the most satisfying viewing of Godzilla I’ve had to date, enough so that my boundless devotion to the 2006 BFI dvd has finally been broken, and those with realistic expectations for the title should be thrilled.
Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool. See our complementary review of Godzilla King of the Monsters! for screenshots from that version of the film.
Strong as the image can be, my minor quibbles aside, the audio is tremendous. Criterion present Godzilla in its original Japanese courtesy of a robust uncompressed 24-bit LPCM 1.0 track that restores the film’s sound mix to its original luster. I usually complement the score with regards to these uncompressed jobs, and Ifukube’s work sounds better than ever here, but it’s Godzilla’s roar that really hooked me on this track. There’s a visceral depth to it that I had never caught onto before, in my many viewings of the film, and at times it can be downright chilling. Complementing the audio is a wonderfully translated new set of subtitles that are more complete than those on the BFI edition.
Supplements are stacked, beginning with the full 80 minute American edition of the film, newly transferred in 1080p from a fine-grain 35mm master positive and a 16mm dupe negative, which comes with its own commentary track and trailer (see our review of Godzilla King of the Monsters! for more details). Otherwise there’s a fine commentary with critic David Kalat, as well as a solid slate of interviews, most newly-produced, and a substantial piece on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. The standout for me is a retrospective interview with late composer Akira Ifukube, recorded in 2000, that runs a whopping 50 minutes. Everything here appears to be rendered in HD (though a couple of pieces are upscaled from SD), and the menu is conveniently accessible disc-wide. Bill Sienkiewicz’s packaging design is earning no end of fan ire, and I can confirm that which has so many in an uproar - that is, in fact, one of the Millennium-series Godzilla designs illustrated on the interior pop-up (itself a bit of an oddity, but kudos for thinking outside the box). Having finally seen it in person I can’t say that I mind – the art has terrific impact, particularly the front cover image, and those for whom the offending bits are an honest distraction will find them easily enough avoided in the Blu-ray edition (you have to fully unfold the two-fold digipak-style interior to see the pop-up, and the disc can be accessed without doing so). A booklet featuring a nice essay by J. Hoberman rounds out the package.
There’s some lost potential here with regards the encode (spreading the content over two discs instead of just one would have readily solved that problem, which is much more pronounced in Godzilla King of the Monsters than it is here), but overall the Criterion Collection’s Godzilla is as strong as fans might have hoped. The film has never looked, sounded, or read better than it does here, and that alone makes this Blu-ray more than worth the price of admission. Recommended!
Continue to Godzilla King of the Monsters!