GODZILLA (Honda, 1954)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 24, 2012
Review by Christopher S. Long
(As the newest franchise installment, "Shin Godzilla," hits theaters - very few theaters and for a very short time - let's take some time to appreciate the glory of the movie that started it all.)
“If you ridicule our traditions, I'll feed you stupid cows to Godzilla.”
So says an old fisherman to a couple of skeptical young women who mock the local legends about a monster from the sea. And to those of you today who dare to ridicule Ishiro Honda’s elegant, timeless “Godzilla” (1954) and its man in a rubber suit sumo-stomping his way across a miniature Tokyo, I remind you that Godzilla is still hungry after all these years.
I don’t know if viewers steeped in the sterile pseudo-photorealism of modern CGI will view the original Godzilla as looking “fake” or not, but I would be surprised if any recent digital monster proves as malleable and as enduring as this great gorilla-whale (goriro + kujira = Gojira, AKA Godzilla) who created an entire sub-genre (the Japanese giant monster movie) and starred or co-starred in 30+ films of his own to date. I suspect that if Godzilla was a high-res, highly articulated creation, he wouldn’t have lent himself so readily to metaphor, initially as a stand-in for the horrors of H-bomb testing inflicted on Japan (by the U.S., though the Americans, just finished with their occupation of Japan, are not mentioned in Godzilla's debut), and in later films as an honored protector of the homeland. He would have been too much of an expressive character and less of a blank, implacable force of nature (or a mutation thereof), thus ceding most of his symbolic power.
Not that we should look at the giant rubber suit, often shot in dim lighting and from a distance, as a cheap-o shortcut. “Godzilla” was one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan, and was a massive gamble for Toho. The studio was banking on both the appeal of its new monster star and the elaborate special effects work of Eiji Tsuburaya, who combined miniatures, high-speed filming and, yes, a man in a rubber suit (a 200-pound, very expensive rubber suit) to create a unique look, both surreal and realistic. The gamble paid off massively in Japan and even more so in America (more on that below).
Japanese audiences no doubt loved the special effects, but may have responded even more to the movie’s obvious but resonant allegorical intentions. When the two million year old Jurassic beast is awakened by H-bomb testing, he begins to attack ships, island communities, and, eventually, Tokyo. Eventually being the key. Godzilla is only glimpsed a few times before the 45-minute mark, and it’s not until nearly an hour into the film that he rains down hellfire upon the city. This creates an odd and lengthy period of waiting that would be anathema to many action filmmakers today. Though the monster is defeated, “Godzilla” is more a story of perseverance than triumph, and his terror is a shared national experience rather than an excuse for a few brave heroes to ride in to save the day, though that does ultimately occur. A populace ravaged by war, and only recently learning about the true devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (information previously suppressed by occupying forces), was hardly shocked by yet another attack from the ocean. And now a giant dinosaur’s coming to kill us all? Figures. Besides, as a professor notes, “Godzilla was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?”
The answer is, of course, an Oxygen Destroyer, but enough about that. What really matters is that period of anticipation from Godzilla’s first sighting to his attack. It provides an opportunity for all of the anxieties of a rebuilding nation to bubble to the surface and eventually reach a catharsis. Godzilla’s initial attack goes almost unchecked, his destruction is widespread, and some of the images of crying and wounded children were no doubt copied from newsreel footage of the prior decade. When he returns to sea, it’s just to take a rest before he does it again, and then again. As a once-removed recreation of an atomic blast, its emotional impact can still be felt 62 years (and about 30 sequels) later.
Godzilla isn’t really a villain. He isn’t necessarily malevolent, he’s just… pissed. How would you react if an H-bomb dropped on your head while you were trying to squeeze out another million years of shut-eye? He’s a victim of the nuclear age too, and it’s no wonder that kids were happy to hug Godzilla plush toys tightly in the dark.
If I’ve ignored the human players in Honda’s game-changing epic, let me make up for it now. Though no single character emerges as a clear protagonist, the narrative centers on a partially-drawn love triangle between a salvage-ship captain named Ogata (Akira Takarada), his girlfriend Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and her fiancé who hasn’t yet gotten the news that he’s no longer her fiancé, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura) also plays a pivotal role in the early investigation. Serizawa is the inventor of the aforementioned Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon he had well before Godzilla loomed over the horizon, which makes for an odd narrative structure. The solution exists from the start. The dramatic tension involves Ogata and Emike convincing him to use it. Serizawa fears that even if the weapon is put to good use this time, eventually it will fall into the hands of politicians, and he isn’t sure that eliminating the immediate threat of Godzilla is worth the long-term risk.
But use it he does, setting up a climactic scene that few might expect from a giant monster movie. Godzilla sleeps underwater. Serizawa and Ogata join him on the ocean floor so they can deploy the Oxygen Destroyer in a final confrontation that turns out to be surprisingly empathetic, even lyrical. The men move slowly and quietly through the water, and our monster friend doesn’t even figure into it until a strangely beautiful shot in which Godzilla, finally detecting the men, turns his head ever so slightly. He has been woken up by yet another bomb. Figures. Godzilla’s ending isn’t quite as silent or as clinical as Frank Poole’s death in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it's subdued enough to actually be touching. Viewers accustomed to the expenditure of massive capital in a final shootout will be left confused. The Oxygen Destroyer bubbles up and… it’s over. The citizens cheer, but there’s also a poignant sense of loss. If we had just let the big lug sleep it off...
At least audiences wouldn’t have long to wait for Godzilla's return.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The source print obviously still has some flaws as there are scratches and other damage visible from time to time. Having said that, this 1080p transfer looks pretty darned good with strong contrast throughout, though the level of detail isn’t always razor sharp and the level of resolution drops most in shots featuring in-camera effects (there is a lot of compositing and matte work). Still, with the strong contrast and the pleasing grainy look, this black-and-white film looks luminous at times, and no doubt better than the majority of viewers have ever seen it.
The LPCM Mono track can’t shake the limitations of the source material. Dialogue sounds rather tinny throughout, though that’s unlikely to matter to non-Japanese speakers. More important, the exceptional and oft-repeated score by Akira Ifukube sounds stronger than the dialogue. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it rich and resonant – I’d love to hear it dialed up to about 11 and booming down on me from every direction even if that wasn’t the intention – but it gets a fair treatment here. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
It’s hard to call it a mere extra, but Criterion has included the American reworking of the Toho film. “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” (1956) was directed by Terry Morse, better known as an editor.
It is absolutely fascinating to watch Honda’s “Godzilla” and this American version back to back. With the original’s imagery fresh in mind, you can see how the original material has been appropriate to different means. Morse, at the behest of producer Joseph E. Levine, lopped off about half of the original film’s footage, then shot an extra 40 minutes with actor Raymond Burr who plays American journalist Steve Martin, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Through strategic editing, Morse makes it appear as if Burr (shooting on sound stages) was present in the scenes from the original film, and even has him interacting with some of the film's characters. Seen today, it’s hard not to chuckle at the fiftieth cutaway to an oddly passive Burr after watching a kinetic scene from the Honda film, but this cut shouldn’t be dismissed either. For one thing, it was a smash hit in America, even bigger than the Honda film was in Japan. It’s also a veritable mini-film school that shows how pre-existing footage can be reworked to produce an entirely different movie.
Godzilla’s attack is moved up, and mentions of the H-bomb are largely omitted. While this was surely intended to blunt the film’s implicit criticism of America and of the H-bomb, the subtext remains, and the limitations of Morse’s editing style turns the would-be American hero into a helpless, irrelevant observer. All he can do is report back home on what’s happening as he watches events unfold. There’s no evidence he carries any guilt over his country’s involvement in the whole affair, but there’s something subversive about the sight of such an impotent American character in this dynamic Japanese film.
Some Japanese dialogue was left unchanged and unsubtitled. Other lines were dubbed by American actors, often speaking lines that have little relation to the original Japanese dialogue as scenes have been re-ordered. It makes for a strange hodge-podge, but you know what’s even stranger? This cut of the film was brought back to Japan, and re-released with the English dubbing subtitled in Japanese which, when cut with the untouched Japanese dialogue, must have made for some serious cognitive dissonance.
“Godzilla, King of the Monsters” would make for a great collection of extras all by itself, but Criterion has really piled on some monster-sized goodies.
For starters, both the Honda original and the Morse re-cut get feature-length commentary tracks by film historian David Kalat, author of “A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series.” Kalat occasionally sounds as if he is literally reading from his book, but this doesn’t mean his commentary is dry. On the contrary, he’s a passionate fan of the Godzilla movies as well as a scholar. He can sometimes be a bit too strident in his defense of every aspect of the films, but he’s a treasure trove of information, and not just trivia. He even places the American release of “Godzilla” in the context of major changes in the art-house market in the mid-'50s. I strongly recommend listening to the commentary on at least one of the films.
The Cast and Crew section includes new interviews with actor Akira Takarada (13 min.), the man in the Godzilla suit Haruo Nakajima (10 min.), and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (30 min.) and a 2000 interview with composer Akira Ifukube.
A short featurette (9 min.) about the Photographic FX shows how some composited images were made. Eiji Tsuburaya and his team did some remarkable work, and you’ll be startled at how some of the images you never thought twice about were stitched together so seamlessly from different parts.
The disc also includes an enlightening illustrated audio essay called “The Unluckiest Dragon.” Lucky Dragon No. 5 was a fishing vessel that needed a little more luck. In early 1954, the ship sailed close to Bikini Atoll when American forces set off a massive H-bomb test. Radioactive ash covered the sailors and they were badly injured (one man died shortly thereafter). The incident was a major strain on U.S.-Japanese relations and was perhaps the most immediate inspiration for Honda’s “Godzilla.” Certainly the story was fresh in viewers' minds as they watched Japanese ships being incinerated by a mysterious force from the ocean. The essay is written and narrated by Columbia University Professor Greg Pflugfelder.
The set wraps up with a new interview with film critic Tadao Sato (14 min.) and a lively three-minute Theatrical Trailer.
The surprisingly slim 12-page insert booklet features an essay by critic J. Hoberman.
You should not pass up the opportunity to watch both versions of “Godzilla” back to back. It’s quite an eye opener, and since the two cuts are so different, you won’t feel like you’re covering too much of the same ground. Add in the commentary tracks on both films by David Kalat, and I think it’s fair to say that this Criterion release will change the way you view “Godzilla,” and Godzilla himself, in a meaningful way. With a solid high-def transfer and a ton of extras, this is the definitive North American release of a film that change the look of international cinema as much as virtually any other in the 1950s.