1954’s Godzilla is the paterfamilias of the giant monster from the sea concept, spawning a half century’s worth of remakes, reboots and rip-offs. Directed with grim relish by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, Godzilla is built on the stuff of nightmares, and it’s a fitting karmic justice for man’s greedy and foolhardy tinkering with the dark side of science. While often derided as imitative of such American-made creature features as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them – an odd criticism since all of these films were actually made at about the same time – Godzilla upped the ante by cashing in not only on a nation’s primal fears, but its recent experience with mysterious forces of mass destruction. As the enormous monster runs amok, reducing the splendors of Tokyo to finely crushed rubble, the citizenry can only watch in helpless terror. Japan’s military defenses are powerless against this humongous lizard, just as they were a decade ago in Hiroshima, when another devastating hellfire rained from the sky.
Part gruesome detective story, part ill-fated romance, Godzilla pursues a familiar narrative path in the early reels. When fishing boats begin disappearing off the Japanese coast, a leading scientist named Yemani (Takashi Shimura) is called in to investigate. As in the Byron Haskin/George Pal reductive version of War of the Worlds (1953), Yemani is accompanied by his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), a comely young lass ripe for the picking – hormonal urges and imminent destruction just seem to go together – and her boyfriend Akira (Hideto Ogata).
During a violent typhoon, an inordinate number of peasant huts on the island of Odo are crushed to bits, prompting an investigation by Yemani’s team. It is here we get our first glimpse of Godzilla, when his hideous head briefly pops up over a hilltop in one of the least convincing matte shots of the 1950s. Wisely, from this point on, Honda and Tsuburaya stage their monster scenes as night exteriors; thick black shadows being much more forgiving to their behemoth’s rubbery façade.
Eventually Godzilla arrives in Tokyo town, where a wild night of wanton destruction awaits. The skyscraper-size reptile displays all of his talents, including a virulent and vaporizing brand of atomic halitosis. As one would expect, compared to today’s GCI marvels Godzilla’s mad scene requires a heavy dose of belief suspension. Tsurburaya’s miniatures were revelatory in 1953, but today’s viewers will likely see the monster’s killing field as little more than an elaborate Lionel train set. This sequence of fiery destruction ends with the film’s most direct quotation from its cinematic ancestor King Kong as fighter planes arrive and attempt to drive Godzilla back into the sea.
But all is not lost, for Emiko has a secret ace up her sleeve or, to be more precise – owing to the vagaries of Japanese social customs – a secret fiancée: a disgruntled hermit scientist named Diasuke (Akihiko Hirata). Deep in the bowels of his country estate, Diasuke has developed a weapon so terrible he dare not speak its name. At Emiko’s urging, Diasuke is forced into a Harry Truman-esque dilemma: yeah, he could help Japan against this big freaking lizard, but his weapon could also be perverted to destroy all life on Earth. Meanwhile the monstrous Godzilla, a deadly freak created science, continues to demolish everything in his path, and Daisuke realizes that what science creates, it must also destroy.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the way Godzilla looks or sounds, as Criterion’s colorists have done a fine job of retaining the stark, nightmarish quality of the original night exteriors. Matrices have been created that render sufficient detail without revealing matte lines; likely a very tricky balance. According to the liner notes, parts of the companion feature Godzilla, King of the Monsters – more on that in a moment – were transferred from a16mm positive, but the melding is seamless and unnoticeable. Both films were produced in 1.37:1, and are absolutely immaculate.
The track arrives in mono, sourced from an optical, and it too is a shining example of restoration. Overall, the disc’s technical aspects are beyond reproach.
New high-definition digital restoration of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Terry Morse’s 1956 reworking of the original (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
This is the version of the film that will be most familiar to North American audiences, having run for decades on small town TV stations late at night. Criterion’s description of it as a “reworking” is on the money, as Terry Morse essentially took the completed film and shot inserts of a visiting American reporter (Raymond Burr) acting as a sort of witness. Morse’s aggregate ranges from quite clever to groan-inducing, but there’s no denying the assembly was a smart marketing move, and contributed greatly to Godzilla’s eventual world-wide popularity. The bulk of the original edit remained intact, although much of the dialogue was dubbed into English. Burr’s narration also adds a beneficial clarification, as the exact relationship between Emiko and Daisuke is a bit murky in the original version. One interesting difference: the Morse version downplays the possibility of American nuclear weapons testing as a possible cause of Godzilla’s monstrous proportions, and instead pushes the idea of the creature as a simple freak of nature. Fans of the original version will likely find this incarnation either amusing or appalling, with little middle ground. And on an ironic note, Burr’s character is named Steve Martin, which doesn’t make it any easier to take the film seriously.
Audio commentary for both movies by film historian David Kalat
Kalat begins his commentary by stating he will not defend or apologize for his love of Godzilla, then proceeds to strike a defensive tone for the next 90 minutes. Kalat traces the history of monster films, and credits the successful re-release of King Kong in 1952 with creating a near frenzy for the format. He goes into great biographical detail on the lives of virtually everyone associated with the making of Godzilla, and makes a number of interesting points about Japan’s tortured history with the atom, even citing the near catastrophe that followed the 2011 Earthquake as a contemporary example. Godzilla fans will find Kalat’s commentary worthwhile. Others will find his tone and frequent disparaging comments about “film snobs” off-putting. Your call.
New interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai
Presented as stand alone interviews, these segments total 47 minutes in duration and cover a variety of perspectives regarding Godzilla’s creation. Takarada discusses the pressure he felt from Toho Studios, as he was an unknown actor given a meaty role in what was the studio’s most expensive and ambitious production. Nakajima, who was inside the Godzilla suit, goes in-depth on its design and fabrication, and relates how he went on to play the monster in 12 subsequent productions. Irie and Kaimai were quite young and inexperienced when Godzilla was produced, and only served as sort of unofficial apprentices to effects master Tsuburaya. According to the pair, one of the most difficult challenges the production faced was repairing the Godzilla suit every night after the tremendous beating the apparatus would take during a typical shooting day. Overall, the remembrances of all four gentlemen are interesting, if a bit disorganized and rambling.
Interview with legendary Godzilla score composer Akira Ifukube
Filmed in 2000, Ifukube discusses his rather circuitous route from a career in forestry to one of Japan’s leading film composers. His most interesting insights deal with Kurosawa, who was treated as lord and master by Toho Studios. Kurosawa apparently saw himself as a master mediator, and loved to intervene in other people’s creative discussions and disputes, even if the arguments concerned productions he was not involved in. And comically, no one at Toho ever had the courage or standing to tell him to butt out. However, at 50 minutes the piece gets quite repetitive and generally suffers from overkill.
Featurette detailing Godzilla’s photographic effects, introduced by special effects director Koichi Kawakita and special effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka
This fascinating segment utilizes short snippets of recently discovered outtakes to shed light on some of the special effects techniques used in Godzilla. Matte shots are demonstrated, using before and after comparisons, revealing an extensive use of the process, including scenes that at first glance appeared to be straightforward photography. Kawakita and Tomioka also discuss Eiji Tsuburaya’s use of smoke to create aerial perspective, and the use of abnormal frame rates to enhance the effect. At 9 minutes, the piece is a concise and educational look at the photographic tricks of a bygone age, and a vital history lesson to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.
New interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato
Sato is well versed in Japanese cinema history, and here he shares his thoughts on Godzilla’s place in that legacy. He traces Godzilla’s genesis to the post-war American occupation, and that era’s suppression of information about the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also sees a direct correlation between the monstrous lizard and traditional Kabuki Theater, with its elaborate costumes and moralistic messaging. He discusses the friendship between Kurosawa and Godzilla director Honda, based on the latter’s ability to draw convincing wood grain on cheap, cardboard set pieces. Sato’s presentation is informative and amusing, and well worth the 14 minute investment.
The Unluckiest Dragon, an illustrated audio essay featuring historian Greg Pflugfelder describing the tragic fate of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a real-life event that inspired Godzilla
This indispensable supplement tells the true story of a Japanese fishing boat that happened to be trawling near Bikini Atoll on the occasion of an American H-Bomb test. While American authorities insisted they had warned vessels to avoid the area, the catastrophic effects of the blast reached much farther than anticipated, with the Daigo Fukuryu Maru getting the worst of it by far. The entire crew was hospitalized for months with radiation sickness, and a radio operator eventually died as a result. This caused a difficult rift in U.S./Asian relations, and a thinly disguised version of this sad event was later used as the dramatic catalyst for Godzilla. The piece is well researched and presented, and is an interesting and little known event from the archives of America’s military misadventures.
The original Japanese trailer is included, and it promises “Special Effects Superior to Hollywood!” While possibly true, in 1954 that claim wasn’t as impressive as it sounded.
A booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman
This 12 page booklet is a little light on images, but Hoberman’s brilliant essay certainly makes up for it. His article goes into the film’s history in Japan as well as the efforts to bring Godzilla to American audiences. Taut, flowing and deceptively simple, Hoberman’s piece is a vivid reminder of why his work should be considered the gold standard of film criticism. The booklet also includes credits and notes on the transfer.
Godzilla is not the type of film likely to be of interest to readers of this website, therefore it does not earn a recommendation. While it may hold some allure for cinema historians, the film’s vintage special effects are simply too dated to generate anything but bemusement in today’s viewers. There are those who will claim that Godzilla is filled with profound observations about man’s inability to control the devastating forces unleashed by science, and therefore an important film. It is not. Like its title character, Godzilla was never intended to be more than an oversized diversion, and advances in filmmaking technology have rendered its spectacular elements quaint and ineffective. Stripped of its spectacle, all that remains of Godzilla is wooden acting, underdeveloped characters and a rather awkward, obese amphibian. Not to mention a nagging sense that this production was a low-brow, cynical attempt to cash in on a nation’s terrifying, and very real, nuclear nightmare.
- Film Review
- Disc Review