Godzilla (Gojira)

Director: Ishirô Honda
Screenplay: Ishirô Honda and Takeo Murata (story by Shigeru Kayama)
Stars: Akira Takarada (Hideto Ogata), Momoko Kôchi (Emiko Yamane), Akihiko Hirata (Daisuke Serizawa-hakase), Takashi Shimura (Kyohei Yamane-hakase), Fuyuki Murakami (Professor Tanabe), Sachio Sakai (Newspaper Reporter Hagiwara), Toranosuke Ogawa (Nankai Shipping Company Manager), Ren Yamamoto (Masaji Sieji), Kan Hayashi (Chairman of Diet Committee), Takeo Oikawa (Chief of Emergency Headquarters), Seijirô Onda (Parliamentarian Oyama), Tsuruko Mano (Mrs. Sieji), Toyoaki Suzuki (Shinkichi Sieji)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: Japan
Godzilla Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
GodzillaIt is too easy to take Godzilla for granted. Having been a cornerstone of international popular culture for nearly six decades, in the process spawning 27 official sequels and too-many-to-count remakes, rip-offs, and spin-offs in every medium imaginable (not to mention Blue Öyster Cult’s 1977 tongue-in-cheek rock anthem), the original marauding monster movie is so familiar to even those who have never seen it that we are constantly in danger of losing sight of both its innovative nature and its socio-political daring. The original Godzilla (Gojira) was, after all, the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time and the first attempt by Japanese filmmakers to produce a significant science fiction monster movie. More importantly, though, it was a brave attempt to integrate current issues, specifically the heightened fears of the atomic age, into a genre film. For all its rubbery fakeness and sometimes silly plotting, the film nevertheless cuts right to the bone of nuclear anxiety, which is all the more chilling given that it was produced by the only country to have ever suffered the ravages of nuclear attack.

The film opens with a direct reference to the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), a Japanese fishing vessel that made the mistake of sailing too close to the Bikini Atoll where the U.S. military was testing its newly developed hydrogen bomb. The boat was rained on with radioactive ash (later called shi no hai or “death ash”), and all the crew members developed acute radiation poisoning, with the radio operator dying seven months later. For Japanese audiences at the time, whose memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less than a decade old, the film’s opening must have felt like a docudrama recreation, with the fisherman on a fictional vessel screaming in anguish as they are enveloped an intense light from the ocean. Alas, it is not a bomb in this case, but rather the prehistoric Godzilla, who has been stirred to action after his deep underwater lair was decimated by atomic testing. Thus, even though he is the film’s monstrous threat, he is also immediately rendered sympathetic, especially to those who had suffered atomic devastation. Godzilla’s rampages through the Japanese mainland, especially Tokyo (which had been extensively firebombed during World War II), become not just mindless destruction, but the angry lashing out of a primordial beast drawn against its will into the horrors of the modern age.

Director Ishirô Honda, who started his career with Toho working as an assistant under Akira Kurosawa, plays the material with humanist sincerity, which means that the various characters emerge as more than just cardboard victims. The screenplay by Honda and Takeo Murata (from a story by Shigeru Kayama) isn’t always the most elegant or eloquent, but it is quite adept at lacing the action with contemporary political rhetoric about Japan’s identity in a world of atomic anxiety. The primary character is Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a scientist whose girlfriend, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), is the daughter of a renowned paleontologist (Takashi Shimura) who wants to study Godzilla, rather than annihilate him. Exactly how one would go about studying Godzilla is never elaborated, but his stance plays as an effectively moving plea for understanding, rather than more destruction.

Of course, destruction is the name of the game, and all the socio-political critiques in the world can’t detract from the primary pleasures of Godzilla’s numerous scenes of mass devastation. “Pleasures” is probably not the best word because it doesn’t adequately encapsulate the varied reactions one can have to the havoc on display as Godzilla rips through power lines, tears apart train tracks, knocks over buildings, and sets most of Tokyo on fire. Viewed through modern eyes wedded to the photorealistic wonders of CGI, the obviousness of the model sets and the man in a rubber suit renders the violence slightly silly at times, although the temptation to such condescension, while understandable, ignores both the innovation of the effects at the time (they were literally inventing them as they went along) and the manner in which those effects terrified contemporary audiences by aligning sci-fi thrills with recent historical atrocity. For every special effect that we notice, there are half a dozen that we don’t (matte paintings, optical effects, miniatures), and the film remains a touchstone of large-scale spectacle.

Interestingly, there were virtually no predecessors to Godzilla; it was almost completely unique in its time. In the U.S., Willis O’Brien had helped pioneer stop-motion animation with rampaging dinosaurs in The Lost World (1925) and, of course, the giant gorilla in King Kong (1933), but those films had virtually no imitators until the 1950s. Godzilla was immediately preceded in the U.S. by The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which also featured a mammoth prehistoric reptile (brought to life by the incomparable Ray Harryhausen) wreaking havoc after being rudely awakened from its watery depths by atomic testing. Yet, the setting in Japan and the explicit references to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the ill effects of nearby nuclear testing (one character laments the presence of “atomic tuna”) immediately sets Godzilla apart and imbues it with a solemnity that Honda respects while also recognizing the thrills of make-believe cinematic devastation. The rest of the decade was choked with atomic monstrosities in both Hollywood and Japan, good and bad, and they all owe a debt to that big rubbery lizard that lumbered out of the ocean and became a legend by single-handedly embodying the era’s most distinct fears and sorrows.

Godzilla Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Godzilla is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioJapanese PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
  • Audio commentaries for both movies by film historian David Kalat
  • Video interviews with actor Akira Takarada
  • Video interview with actor Haruo Nakajima
  • Video interview with special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai
  • Video interview with score composer Akira Ifukube
  • Featurette on the film’s photographic effects
  • Video interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato
  • “The Unluckiest Dragon” featurette
  • Trailers for Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters
  • Essay by critic J. Hoberman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 24, 2012

    Having Godzilla under the Criterion banner has been a long time coming. I can remember back in the late 1990s when it was announced that Criterion had struck a deal with Toho to release six Godzilla films on laser disc, a deal that ultimately fell through. I honestly never thought it would happen, but here it is: a Criterion release of not just the original Godzilla, but also the U.S. 1956 recut Godzilla, King of the Monsters in high definition! As with most long-delayed Criterion releases, it was definitely worth the wait, as the 1080p transfer of Godzilla, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the (now lost) original camera negative, is the best the film has ever looked on home video and surely the best it has looked since it originally played theatrically in 1954. The U.S. version was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and a 16mm dupe negative, which leaves all of those pathetic low-budget DVD releases far behind. The transfers of both films have brought new depth and clarity to the black-and-white image, allowing us to better appreciate the details of the cinematography and the special effects. There are numerous flaws inherent to the image, particularly some white speckling in the optical shots and numerous scratches in the stock footage that is used from time to time, but that is inherent to the film’s original look. Digital restoration has removed all other signs of age and wear, bringing the films to life in a way that I have never seen. Both soundtracks have been mastered at 24-bit and digitally restored; Godzilla was mastered from the fine-grain optical track while King of the Monsters was mastered from the 35mm fine-grain master positive’s variable density track. Obviously, the soundtracks are not going to compare to today’s multi-track aural extravaganzas, but they still sound surprisingly good, with fine depth and quite a bit of punch on the low end when Godzilla stomps out of the ocean or belts his unique roar.
    Criterion has equipped both Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters with new audio commentaries by film historian David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, one of the first English-language books to take a serious critical look at the films. Kalat’s commentary is both fun and informative; he is clearly a geeked-out fan of the series and doesn’t mind having some fun in demonstrating his affection for the films, while at the same time treating them seriously as intriguing cinematic products of the atomic age. In addition to the commentaries, Criterion has also assembled an impressive array of new video interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew: actors Akira Takarada (13 min.) and Haruo Nakajima (10 min.), special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (30 min.), and score composer Akira Ifukube (51 min.). There is also a new 15-minute interview with Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato, who discusses the film’s impact in Japan. They have also included a Japanese-produced featurette on the film’s photographic effects, which is introduced by special effects director Koichi Kawakita and includes an interview with special effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka. The featurette is fascinating in the way it draws our attention to the various effects that largely pass unnoticed, such as matte paintings and opticals. Another new featurette is the 10-minute visual essay “The Unluckiest Dragon,” which features historian Greg Pflugfelder discussing the tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. Finally, the disc includes trailers for Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters and a new essay by critic J. Hoberman.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Toho and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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