It’s strange to think that not too long ago, the inclusion of Godzilla in The Criterion Collection would elicit the kind of clueless sneers and WTFs usually reserved for films like Armageddon or, to a surprising many, the films of Wes Anderson. Even now, Godzilla has a certain unearned reputation as schlock, but the the total geek takeover of mainstream culture has had one significant benefit – educating the masses of the enduring cultural and artistic importance of science fiction and fantasy. And there are few genre films more important, and even fewer more iconic, than 1954’s Godzilla.
By now, the concept of the film as a response to nuclear armament is well-established, but what is less acknowledged, and what I certainly didn’t know, is that its inception is even more immediate than that. Following World War II, the United States conducted hydrogen bomb tests on the Marshall Islands, telling Japanese fishermen and other vessels to just stay away, but not elaborating on why. Unsurprisingly, a fishing company decided to send a boat, the Lucky Dragon 5, out there, correct in assuming there’d be no competition. The fishermen saw what looked like an erupting sun over the horizon, turned around, and within weeks it was clear they all had acute radiation syndrome. The chief radioman died six months later, and two months after that, Godzilla was released, sporting an opening scene that is almost a direct dramatization of the Lucky Dragon incident.
So when people talk about the social importance of Godzilla, it’s not just an overarching, stock, Cold War reaction. It’s a very definite, pointed piece that also speaks to a larger unrest that had been troubling Japan since World War II. That, on top of all that, it’s also a surprisingly complex piece in terms of morality, with no clear answer to any of the many obstacles put forward – from relationship drama all the way up to the major philosophical questions surrounding the atomic bomb – AND an exciting monster movie becomes almost overbearing. I don’t hold it in nearly the same esteem that others do – the acting in particular is rough in many areas – but the declaration that Godzilla is an “important classic film,” to use Criterion’s own terminology, and one of the greatest films ever made, is beyond question.
I do wish all films in the Collection were afforded the treatment with which Criterion has lavished this title. If you’re a fan of Godzilla at all, the acquisition of this new Blu-ray edition is almost mandatory. Obviously, Criterion has extensively restored the main feature, with glimmering picture and crystal-clear sound. Aside from its iconic imagery, Godzilla isn’t the most visually dynamic film, and its cinematography was never the sharpest, but the many shades of gray are well-represented, the picture is quite sharp, and the film grain and damage marks seem inherent to the material and irremovable (David Kalat backs this up in his commentary). The astounding score by Akira Ifukube, perhaps the film’s single greatest feature, is booming and encompassing, without overshadowing the drama onscreen. Except, you know, when it’s supposed to.
The same treatment has been afforded to Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the American remake/re-imagining/dubbed version. For those who don’t know, an editor named Terry Morse was hired not only to recut and dub the film for American audiences, but also film new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter named Steve Martin (hilarious in retrospect, kind of like how there’s a character named Frank Miller in High Noon), who wouldn’t you know it, just happened to be slightly offscreen during the events of the Japanese version. It’s kind of like Forrest Gump, only without the painful self-awareness. The vagaries of film preservation have resulted in a situation in which the Japanese scenes in King of the Monsters look way worse than they do in the full Japanese Godzilla, but the American scenes look way better, but on the whole it’s another handsome high-definition transfer on Criterion’s part.
Then you get to the special features, and you really don’t know what to do with yourself. On the whole, I’m sorry to say, this is sort of a case in which more is less – they’ve thrown hours and hours and hours of material on here, but not as much sticks as you might like.
But let’s start with the good – David Kalat’s commentary tracks on both Godzilla and King of the Monsters! are fan-freaking-tastic. Unleashing an enthusiasm I previously thought reversed for friend-of-the-show and AuteurCast co-host West Anthony, if you weren’t previously convinced of neither Godzilla’s quality, nor its import, Kalat’s sheer force of will would certainly do the trick. They’re both deep commentary tracks, effortlessly interweaving world and film history, production stories, thematic insight, aesthetic admiration, and pure, undaunted enthusiasm. I listen to many, many commentary tracks, and these two team up to make for one of the finest listening experiences I’ve yet had. Were you to buy the disc for just these, you would not be disappointed.
I’d then advise you to turn to The Unluckiest Dragon, a video essay by historian Greg Pflugfelder (who I’m sure was never teased in grade school) on the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, and its enduring legacy. It’s short (just over nine minutes), informative, and not without its share of terrifying material, and on the whole very well put together.
There’s a short featurette on the film’s photographic effects (that is, the method by which the monster footage was combined with crowd shots), and while it’s short on technical detail, it’s loaded with great, primary-source material visually detailing the process. Might be one for gearheads only, but hey, we need some love too sometimes.
Beyond that, your own personal interest in the subject matter addressed in each subject matter may make for a more fulfilling experience, but the interviews with the cast and crew (specifically actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Elzo Kaimai, and composer Akira Ifukube). As I was endlessly enthralled by the score, the piece on Ifukube suited me best, even at its rather long running time (50 minutes). The rest did not make for the most compelling speakers, but the interviews are also laden with amazing behind-the-scenes photos, so if that’s your bag, there’s added incentive. At the very least, I can’t imagine a major Godzilla fan, or those with interest in classic monster movies, would much regret many of the insights offered in each.
Finally, film critic Tadao Sato offers a short piece on Godzilla’s place in Japanese culture, but honestly, there’s nothing here that isn’t covered in the commentaries, which by their very nature are go into much greater depth. There are a few added anecdotes, however (Sato was a film journalist when Godzilla was first released, so he was at ground zero, so to speak), and since it only runs about 12 minutes, it hardly hurts.
A booklet is enclosed with an essay by J. Hoberman, whose credits listed following his words are already out of date, mere days before this is released, but we are provided here with yet another reason that his recent departure from The Village Voice came too soon, but could never truly have come at a fitting time.
Finally, I want to say a word about the cover art, which has come under tremendous scrutiny by all the usual suspects, complaining that the monster represented is a closer match to the recent American remake than that in the Japanese classic. Criterion’s response is that they asked artist Bill Sienkiewicz to capture a more elemental vision of the monster than a strict interpretation, which is in keeping with the design philosophy that has guided their art for the past decade-plus. I have dozens of Criterion discs, and unless they use a photograph for the cover, they never represent a realistic portrayal of the films’ subjects, preferring instead to capture the feel of the piece, which this one does perfectly.
This is a tremendous package in all the ways one would hope and expect. The transfer on both films is lovely, suffering not one bit from what would seem like a disc overloaded with content. While that content is sometimes redundant or unnecessary, the good stuff is so very good that one needs only to take a curatorial stance to get the most out of this. The main feature is a classic film, and one could easily make the argument that it’s among the greatest ever made. Criterion has provided a package worthy of such a film, and even those with a casual interest in it are well advised to pick it up. I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something.