Like King Kong, Godzilla is a universally known and respected movie monster. The big green guy still has a huge presence in his homeland of Japan, where stuffed animals of his likeness still line store shelves, and the subgenre he created – kaiju – is still thriving; surprisingly, he’s not quite as integrated into American culture, even though we have not only a recut version of the original Gojira entitled Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!, but also an ill-advised, big-budgeted remake in the 90’s, two cartoon series, and a forthcoming reboot. General audiences, more often than not, associate Godzilla with the more absurd bits of the later entries, which are a blast to watch with their rubbery suit antics, team-ups, and endless amounts of miniature set destruction. The original Gojira, on the other hand, is exciting AND intelligent, being – quite possibly – the only fun commentary on nuclear war and the rebuilding of a society in existence.
Released around the same time as Toho’s other nuclear metaphor, Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear, Gojira emerged as the box-office victor among its brethren tackling the same subject, taking the symptoms of radiation and turning them into a larger-than-life, physical entity. Much like the nuclear attack that awoke the prehistoric creature, the film itself was a patriotic tale that gave the film industry – and economy, in general – a boost and made the world see Japan in a new light, and even more so after King Of The Monsters! was released with Raymond Burr edited in (which was more widely seen), even though much of the commentary was altered significantly by Terry Morse cutting almost half the film and replacing it with footage starring Raymond Burr to give it an American perspective.
Atomophobia, or the fear of atomic explosions, has been used to explain the focal point of Gojira, and rightly so. Godzilla, the result of a nuclear detonation, is eventually defeated by Serizawa(Akihiko Hirata), fighting science with science and overcoming his atomophobia for his country’s survival – his inspiration comes from a televised chorus of schoolgirls performing a peace hymn, no less. In the wake of destruction, Japan comes away from the attacks as a reinvigorated and reborn society, ready to overcome their fears and thrive as a forward-thinking, developing nation.
Of course, Gojira’s socio-political message would not be as memorable if not for the incredible special effects and kaiju (giant monster) performance by Haruo Nakajima, who would play the creature in 12 different films. From today’s perspective, the man-in-a-suit schtick is fun and hokey, but in 1954, it was a revelation to filmmakers. Other films at the time were using mechanical creatures (Them!) or stop-motion (Harryhausen’s work on The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a film which many compared Gojira to), so having a guy in a suit rampaging around on a miniature set – fantastically made, I might add – was the next step towards a more natural, realistic creature performance (as far as those go).
For the 27 Toho produced films that followed, the series would shift towards the less serious side of things, having him co-star alongside King Kong, his own offspring, spiritual deities, and space aliens as a hero – to be fair, he’s technically not an evil villain in the original film either, he’s just angry about being woken up. But as an uplifting tale of recovery, reemergence and national pride, none would ever hold the immediate culture significance that Ishiro Honda’s Gojira did.
Criterion’s 1080p transfer is leaps and bounds ahead of Classic Media’ problematic Gojira release, which had a really weird 1.47:1 aspect ratio and a lot of DNR, resulting in some scenes which were extremely soft with no fine detail. Criterion, being the miracle working company they are, restored the film with careful color correction, brightness alterations, and even some tastefully done noise reduction, which did leave some small scratches and debris unfixed, but otherwise gave the film a great reintroduction to high definition. King Of The Monsters!, also included on the disc, is handled with the same amount of care. The Japanese and English LPCM 1.0 tracks is also way better than CM’s Dolby 2.0 remix, staying strong throughout with clear dialogue finely balanced with the score and sound effects. Godzilla’s roar has depth and bass to it – a rumble, if you will – and the really annoying hissing from CM’s disc is completely absent. Another fantastic presentation from Criterion, whom I’m rarely disappointed with.
Before I jump into these special features, I wanted to point out that Criterion did not reuse ANY of Classic Media’s segments for their release.
Commentary – Newly recorded for Criterion’s release, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series author David Kalat provides a different track for both films, which is great considering different the Japanese vs. American perspective makes them. He delves into changes, inspirations, difficulties during both shoots, themes, and a lot more. If anything, he’s more interesting than Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, which I seem to remember gave particular dry commentaries on CM’s discs, though Kalat’s bubbling adoration for both might lead listeners to find him a bit overwhelming.
Cast And Crew (103:37) – A series of newly shot interviews, featuring actor Akira Takarada, the man in the suit himself, Haruo Nakajima, special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, and composer Akira Ifukube. The longest interview is with Ifukube and is quite in-depth, as he chats about setting the tone, his reaction the film, the difference between absolute and applied music in film, and his recording process; if you’re really into film scores, this is one of the best and most intelligent interviews I’ve ever seen on the subject. Takarada’s interview is good, but nothing more than a few on set stories. The real meat and potatoes for me were the interviews with Nakajima, who goes his performance and getting into the kaiju mindset, and Irie and Maimai, who go over troubleshooting the suit, their work on the miniatures, and Godzilla’s atomic breath.
Photographic Effects (09:05) – With introductions by both Koichi Kawakita (SFX director) and Motoyoshi Tomioka (SFX cameraman), this compilation of effect shots are mostly unused composite shots, in addition to some scenes with showcase the extensive use of matte paintings used in the film.
Tadao Sato (14:05) – Famed Japanese critic Tadao Sato talks about the film’s release and it’s immediate impact, and how it was the biggest spectacle ever put to screen at the time. Sato’s perspective is really interesting, as he was just starting his career when Gojira came out, so his entire career, from the very beginning, has had him brushing shoulders with Japan’s biggest star.
The Unluckiest Dragon (09:38) – An illustrated audio essay by Columbia University historian Gregory Pflugfelder on Lucky Dragon No. 5, a fishing vessel that was radioactively effected by hydrogen bomb testing and served as an inspiration for Gojira.
A 14-page booklet is included, featuring Poetry After The A-Bomb, an essay by J. Hoberman.