The new Criterion Collection edition of Godzilla is a two-DVD set that includes both the 1954 Japanese original Gojira and the 1956 Americanized recut Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. From the pop-up Godzilla inside the cardboard case to the supplements included on each DVD, great care was obviously taken in presenting the definitive edition of this seminal monster classic. The main attraction is the unaltered original film, directed by Ishir? Honda and written by Honda with Takeo Murata. With the series of sequels and rip-offs that quickly followed and continue to this day, it’s easy to forget the stark power and cultural significance of the original. Godzilla emerged from the waters of Tokyo Bay as a living, breathing embodiment of the nuclear bomb – a justifiably paranoid by-product of the Cold War era.
What the DVD supplements do a superb job of is helping put the film in historical context. While Gojira is enjoyable on its own as a well-crafted sci-fi/monster movie, knowing a little about its inspiration adds considerably to the experience. Of course, the references to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki make the overall Atomic Age allegory very obvious. But somewhat lesser known is that the direct inspiration for Gojira was the U.S. hydrogen bomb detonation known as Castle Bravo that occurred March 1st, 1954. This was the single largest nuclear device ever detonated by the U.S., with a 15-megaton yield that exceeded expectations by two and a half times. The bomb was 1,000 times more powerful than those dropped on Japan during World War II. It was a terrible mistake – a runaway explosion that resulted in nuclear fallout contaminating a far greater range than originally planned. A Japanese fishing boat named The Lucky Dragon came in direct contact with the fallout ash and sickened the crew of 23. The chief radio operator died seven months later from radiation poisoning.
And so Gojira opens with the destruction of a fishing boat by some unknown surge of powerful energy. As more and more boats are sent to investigate, all fall victim to the same mysterious destructive force. It is eventually discovered that as a result of rampant nuclear testing, a prehistoric lizard that has survived two million years beneath the ocean has mutated from all the radiation. Once Godzilla has surfaced, the creature demonstrates fearsome powers – most notably super-heated breath capable of leaving entire cities in flames. Nothing the Japanese government can think of is enough to defeat the monster. While the story is not complex, the tension is kept high as all of Japan fears an impending doomsday as all attempts to stop Godzilla prove futile. Meanwhile, a scientist named Daisuke Serizawa has created a powerful weapon he dubs the Oxygen Destroyer, whose power when deployed under water may be Japan’s only hope. But Serizawa is intent on keeping his creation a closely guarded secret, convinced that it could lead to more harm than good.
Though obviously very dated nearly sixty years later, Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects are still quite effective. The Godzilla monster was actually a person inside a suit. The result is inevitably somewhat hokey looking, especially when the creature’s full body is seen lumbering around. But effects such as melting electrical towers and collapsing buildings remain impressive when their age is taken into consideration. A featurette on the DVD shows before-and-after stills of scenes utilizing matte painting that are, in fact, difficult to detect even today. Miniatures are sometimes glaringly obvious – a damaged helicopter, in particular, looks rather toy-like. Actually some of the most effective scenes, from an effects standpoint, are the stormy scenes on Odo Island early in the film before we actually see the monster. These scenes are ominous in their suggestion of the monster’s presence.
Criterion’s DVD presents an entirely acceptable visual and audio experience, considering the age of the movie. Stock footage of depth charges being deployed at sea looks horrible, but I’m sure that was inherent in the source. Criterion’s Godzilla is also available on Blu-ray if you’re looking for an even better visual presentation. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a great supplement to the main feature, as it offers a distinctly different take on the story. Raymond Burr stars as Steve Martin, an American reporter, in this re-edit, with footage directed by Terry Morse strategically inserted into the original. Martin’s narration provides exposition for English-speaking audiences that reduces the need for subtitles. The references to Godzilla as a nuclear creation are reduced in the American version, making it more of a traditional monster movie. While the Japanese version is preferable, the recut is an interesting companion piece.
Both the original and recut version are supplemented by audio commentaries, both by film historian David Kalat. Cast and crew interviews make up the bulk of the extras on disc two, while the aforementioned featurettes on the visual effects and real-life Lucky Dragon incident are the meat of disc one’s extras. A fourteen minute interview with film critic Tadao Sato is also included on the first disc, with Sato explaining the significance of the original film.