Oh, No -- They Say He's Got to Go... 'Godzilla'!

To say that this is action-packed is an understatement. Director Ishiro Honda, who learned his trade as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa and worked on some of that master’s most famous films, knew how to pace a movie, feeding the audience steady doses of excitement that ramp upward to a nail-biting finalé.


Director: Ishiro Honda
Cast: Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: not rated
Release date: 2012-01-24

The first thing you notice is the sound—the thunderous footprints and caterwauling wail-screech that echoes behind the credits, sounding something like Chewbacca on meth. The second thing you notice is the pristine picture quality—there's scarcely a flicker or scratch or speck of dust to be seen. The shadows are thick and the atmospheric black-and-white print oozes ambience. But you're probably expecting this; it's a Criterion Collection DVD, after all.

For a long time, Godzilla was viewed by American audiences as a cheesy Japanese monster movie, a King Kong knockoff starring a guy in a rubber suit. In large part this perception was formed by the movie's adulterated US version, which stripped a hefty chunk of the original's running time and replaced some of it with stand-in footage of American actor Raymond Burr, who spends much of his time standing around looking grave. This new release, like the 2004 2-disc set from Classic Media, seeks to redress that wrong, placing Gojira, as it was originally known, in the pantheon of respectable films, and possibly great ones.

Much has been written about how Gojira is a movie that reflects Japan's anxieties about the atomic age. The only country ever to have had its population attacked by atomic weapons, Japan's most famous monster is himself an irradiated creature, the result of nuclear testing gone awry. The movie's opening scene, in which the salvage vessel Eiku Maru comes under radioactive attack from we-know-not-what (but we'll soon find out), intentionally echoes the real-world experience of the Japanese fishing ship Daigo Fukuryu Maru, which was caught in radioactive fallout following an American H-bomb test in the Pacific in the same year Godzilla was made.

There are scenes echoing Tokyo's recent experience of bombardment and mass casualties, with makeshift hospitals and lines of stony-faced evacuees, Geiger counters and newspaper headlines detailing "heavy losses at sea". For a nation whose wartime memories were still so fresh (the movie was released in 1954), the parallels were impossible to miss. In case anyone did manage to miss them, there are telling moments of dialogue, as when a woman on train declares, "I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki—and now this!" Needless to say, these references were excised for the American version.

Sociopolitical commentary aside, what's striking about this movie is the sheer amount of stuff that gets wrecked, sunk, exploded, crushed or mauled. In the opening minutes, the audience witnesses a pair of steamships bursting into flames, soon followed by an island village being demolished, along with a helicopter. Our first glimpse of the creature soon follows. The military is called in, scientists stand around looking somber, and angry mobs demand to know what's really going on.

All this is nothing but prelude to the orgy of destruction that takes place when Godzilla makes landfall in Tokyo Bay. To say that this movie is action-packed is an understatement. Director Ishiro Honda, who learned his trade as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa and worked on some of that master’s most famous films, knew how to pace a movie, feeding the audience steady doses of excitement that ramp upward to a nail-biting finalé. Whatever else you might think about costumed lizard-men stomping on scale model replicas of Tokyo, Godzilla is a master class in the art of building and releasing ever-greater amounts of tension. (One exception: the rather silly and pointless love-triangle subplot, but hey, why quibble?)

When the smoke finally clears, Tokyo is saved—for the time being—although a couple dozen sequels await just over the horizon. This is in addition to the dozens of non-Godzilla monsters awaiting their turn to unleash mayhem, including Rodan, Ghidorah, Mothra, Megalon, et al. In time, Godzilla would himself morph into an odd, kid-friendly semi-mascot for Japan, fending off dangers as varied as aliens from space and King Kong himself. None of that should obscure his far more sinister origins here, however.

As usual, Criterion outdoes itself in providing extras for this two-CD set. Besides the Japanese-language original version of Gojira (with optional English subtitles), a second disc contains the bastardized US version, which may well be the one most American remember watching on Saturday afternoons in the '60s and '70s. A 16-page booklet contains detailed production information plus a thoughtful essay by film critic J. Hoberman, while numerous interviews include conversations with actors, special-effects technicians and the composer of the film's rousing score.

Enlightening audio commentary is provided by David Kalat for both ths US and Japanese versions of the films, and he certainly knows his stuff, even if the chatty tone can get a trifle grating at times. There is a somewhat disappointing nine-minute featurette detailing some of the special effects methods used in the film, as well as numerous other odds and ends. Taken as a whole, these features are substantial and and add a great deal to the experience of watching the film.

No surprises, then—Criterion has outdone itself in this product. About the only quandry is for fans who may have already bought the Classic Media package, which also included both the original Japanese print and the bastardized American version. Is the new edition worth the purchase price? The answer, for me at least, is yes. The previous release used a source print that was very badly speckled, and given the movie's many atmospheric night scenes, these blemishes proved to be a significant distraction. They also marred the climax, which takes place underwater.

The Criterion Collection team has done a masterful job of cleaning up all those speckles and blemishes; as I sat watching the movie on a large but not ridiculous TV (a 26" Vizio from Costco), I found the viewing experience far superior to the earlier release. Movie buffs and monster lovers who haven't bought any earlier edition have no quandry at all, of course. This is a terrific movie through and through. Watch it, and let the demolition begin.

Fans of Godzilla and his many manifestations may also enjoy revisiting PopMatters' special feature, "Godzilla at 50" (May 2004)

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