The jacket designs of the Criterion Collection can often be frustratingly obscure and unhelpful, but when you open the jacket on the Criterion Blu-ray release of Godzilla, the monster’s head rears out in classic pop-up style. Not only do you stand there forever, opening and closing and opening again the jacket, but once you do start moving, it is to take the jacket around and show your friends. The entire Blu-ray conveys that same sort of delight. The single platter holds both the original 1954 Japanese feature, and the 1956 revised-with-Raymond-Burr-inserts version, known as Godzilla The King of the Monsters, that conquered America (the latter version is hidden in the supplements), along with some terrific special features.
When Haiti or Malaysia or other locales have suffered the devastation of earthquakes and tsunamis, the calamities have been horrific, but singular. When Japan had a similar disaster, however, the event unleashed a second, nuclear power cataclysm that decimated its countryside perhaps for decades. No other land or people have suffered from the effects of manmade atomic destruction as Japan has, and the monster, Godzilla, is a metaphor of that destruction that has proven to be as far reaching and enduring in its truthfulness as the creature itself has been in popularity. Even America, which is as symbiotically entwined with Japan’s nuclear catastrophes as the American version of the film is with the Japanese version, has embraced the subliminal power that is conveyed by the rubber-suited monster, and its later, upgraded special effect iterations, raging across the captivating miniature landscapes and cityscapes. By transferring the responsibility of the destruction to the unrestrained ‘other,’ the viewer absolves mankind from the guilt of having instigated the terror.
Both versions of the film have been available on DVD in the past, but most viewers are more familiar with the American adaptation of the film, which downplays severely but does not eliminate entirely the references to Godzilla’s atomic origins. Directed by Terry Morse, the Raymond Burr footage in the American version is substantial, and when the two films are watched as a double bill—they are different enough that fans will enjoy the experience—the insertions of Burr are both clever and elaborate. A decent portion of the film remains in Japanese, with Burr either providing a voiceover interpretation or being told as a character what is going on. The meat of the film, Godzilla’s rampages, of course, requires no translation. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the original Japanese film has its hokey moments. As the families of the victims from the monster’s initial attacks on freighters crowd the door of the shipping office to find out if anyone survived, the entire office wall surrounding the doorway wiggles as the extras push against it; and as powerful as the visions of the monster are, the monster is still, so quaintly, a guy in a rubber suit smashing meticulously constructed models. But it is also a compelling drama, in which the characters have conflicted emotional responses to the monster—an elderly scientist believes the creature is too valuable of a specimen to be destroyed but is deeply disturbed by the horrors it has caused—and to one another. The manga-esque design of the characters—one troubled scientist sports a dashing eyepatch, which, as you will never learn in the American version, he received in WWII—is more pronounced, defining the film’s fantasy parameters in a more appreciable manner than the overly-eager-to-get-to-the-good-parts American version does. Perhaps for Fifties drive-in audiences, the Americanized version, which runs 81 minutes, is more efficient and suitable, but for the refined tastes of a sophisticated Blu-ray aficionado, the original Japanese version, which runs 96 minutes, has the calm, poetic beauty of a true work of art, building gradually, teasingly but always inevitably to its climax of frantic chaos and apocalyptic ruin.
Classic Media released a two-platter DVD set, Gojira , which contains both the original Japanese version and the American version. The full screen picture on the Criterion BD is improved over both of them. The black-and-white image, though still subject to some wear at the reel-change points, is substantially free of the speckling that is in regular evidence on the other two releases, and blacks are deeper, with better defined contrasts. The Classic Media version looks okay, but the cleaner and sharper BD just has fewer distractions. The footage carried over to the American version is somewhat weaker than it is on the original Japanese version, but the fresh American sequences are much cleaner, while still doing a viable job of transitioning with the other footage, and again, Criterion’s transfer is cleaner and sharper.
It is the monophonic DTS sound, however, that is the most thrilling improvement, even though the other releases had alternate stereo tracks that boosted the dimensionality of the audio. One understandable but regrettable flaw in the American release is that it holds the film’s credit scroll until the end of the movie, while the Japanese film presents the credits at the beginning, accompanied, before the music kicks in, by powerful, ominous thumps (created by whacking an amplifier). Who needs the thumps after the movie is over and the monster is supposedly dead? Anyway, like the rest of the soundtrack, the thumps are present but somewhat subdued on the stereo releases, while on the BD they are thundering, instilling the viewer with enough trepidation to carry through the long dramatic introduction in the Japanese version before the damage begins. The Japanese version is supported on both presentations by English subtitling, and the American version on both presentations is not captioned. Both releases also feature trailers from both sides of the Pacific.
In January of 1954, America tested the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands and the only civilian casualties of the test were Japanese, the crew of a fishing vessel that, although outside of the safety limit set by the authorities, was too close to the unexpectedly powerful explosion and was exposed to the sickening and eventually lethal radioactive fallout. This incident was the crystallizing moment for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who assigned Honda, screenwriter Shigeru Koyama and effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya to the project that would reach the screens by the end of the year. There is an excellent 10-minute piece on the BD about the fishing boat incident, and in an insightful 14-minute interview, film critic Tadao Sato, who began covering the Japanese film industry at that time (“When I’d call Toho’s marketing department, they’d answer, ‘Toho, home of Godzilla!’”), talks extensively about the parallels between the monster and the dangers of nuclear power.
Footage from the various matte components was unearthed in a film archive and is presented in a terrific 9-minute segment that compares the parts of different shots to their integrated wholes. Shot in 2000, a superb 51-minute interview with composer Akira Ifukube goes over his background and his career as he talks extensively about creating the movie’s memorable music, explains how the monster’s roars were achieved, and gives an in-depth lecture on the dynamics of scoring films. Three terrific interviews from 2011 are included as well. The lead actor (or, rather, the second lead after the big guy), Akira Takarada, talks for 13 minutes about the excitement of landing such a major role, how the actors were instructed to react to the special effects (which he deemed more challenging than acting with the other cast members), and explains how ‘Gojira’ got his name—“It’s from gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale).” Trained in the mime of kabuki theater, Haruo Nakajima speaks for a delightful 10 minutes about working inside the Godzilla suit, explaining how he was able to breathe and sort of see, how he coped with the heat in the days before the sets were air conditioned (he didn’t even have a fan), and how his physical performance, which Sato likens to a sumo wrestler’s movements, was developed. “As Godzilla walked along and came across some object it felt was in its way, it would just push it aside. That was more realistic, more natural, so just intentionally destroying stuff wasn’t allowed.” Finally, two of the effects technicians, Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, sit together for 30 minutes discussing their work under Tsuburaya, explaining the creation of the suit and the miniatures, and sharing many other fascinating details about pulling off their amazing spectacle with relatively limited means. Most of the interviews are accompanied by a wealth of production photographs and other materials presented as inserts during the talks.
Monster movie historian David Kalat supplies commentary tracks on both versions of the film, and they are really intended to be heard sequentially. Along with explaining why either pronunciation—‘Gojira’ or ‘Godzilla’—is equally valid, Kalat supplies an elaborate Cold War context to the movies and provides many rewarding details about the meanings of each sequence, the production participants (including a touching profile of Burr), its staging, and the success of the film’s marketing, including an excellent analysis of the foreign film market in America in the Fifties. While some of his statements are arguable—he claims the specific references to World War II were not removed from the American version for censorship reasons but just happened as a coincidence when footage was trimmed to fit in the new material—his justifications for treating the film as an artistic accomplishment, and for not dismissing the alternative English-language version, are not only valid, but persuasive. He also assures the viewer that Criterion’s transfer is as good as any can get. “This is what Godzilla looked like to Japanese audiences in 1954.”
Two more monster movie historians, Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle, provide a tag team commentary on the two films in the Classic Media Gojira release. The talk on the Japanese version has some scattered trivia that Kalat never gets to (and they dispute the name origin story), but is generally more superficial and less expansive or thorough than Kalat’s talk. For the American version, however, they bring in recordings of reminiscences by several of the people involved with obtaining the rights to the American version, and Morse’s son even joins them to share what he remembers (he worked on it, too) about shooting the American scenes. It is a rewarding supplement and an effective elaboration to Kalat’s coverage of the film. The first platter of the Classic Media presentation also has two other terrific features, a 13-minute summary of scenes that were dropped from the film, accompanied by storyboards and still photos that suggest what the scenes would have looked like, and a 13-minute segment on the creation of the monster suit, again illustrated by extensive still photos and other materials.