Ishiro Hondaís cult favourite, the mother of all monster films, Godzilla, receives a Criterion Blu-ray, which presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
I havenít seen the Blu-ray previously released by Classic Media but based on reviews of that disc, which mostly complained about the filmís contrast and an overall soft look along with heavy damage, it feels safe to say that Criterion offers a significant improvement, delivering a transfer taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive (the original negative no longer exists.) Unfortunately damage is still pretty obvious, a condition from the shoot (Kalat mentions this in the commentary, blaming the film stock that was susceptible to dust and dirt,) and there are plenty of scratches and marks, even worse during some of the in-camera effect moments. Criterion has cleaned up what they could without harming the image, leaving whatís always been there, but thankfully they havenít taken it to certain extremes like they have done with some of their DVD releases, which included softening the image a smidge to hide scratches and marks. Because they didnít go this route the image remains sharp and crisp when the source allows, and contrast also looks to be spot on, with strong blacks, all of which allows some of the darker sequences where Godzilla is destroying Tokyo to be easier to see for the most part (there are still moments where it is hard to see the action but the film has always looked this way from what I remember.) There are moments where pixilation is present when rendering the filmís grain, but in general itís a clean, stable transfer that looks natural and fairly film like only hampered somewhat by the damage still present. 7/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion loads up some nice material for this edition, starting with a very passionate audio commentary provided by David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Tohoís Godzilla series. This is a great commentary track, one of the more entertaining and informative ones Iíve come across in a long while. Kalat mentions early on he doesnít want to take a defensive stance for the film, since, as he acknowledges frequently, Godzilla is looked down upon by many in the critical field. He mostly succeeds (mostly) and manages to keep it straight and, despite all of the information he packs into it, neatly organized. He talks about the Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident that influenced the film right off (where a fishing vessel got too close to an H-Bomb testing site) and then gets into the early days of the production all the way to its release. And along the way he talks about the effects in great detail (even mentioning how it was originally supposed to be stop motion,) the models, the many political elements brought up in the film, which were inserted primarily by Honda, admires the way he doesnít make characters/victims anonymous entities, and addresses other criticsí unflattering comments. Itís these areas where he gets a little defensive, like when he addresses how The New York Times once called Takeshi Shimura the greatest actor alive for his performance in Ikiru only to later write there are not good actors in Godzilla, despite the fact Shimura is in it. He also takes a stab at the ďpretentiousĒ fan boys who refuse to call the film anything other than Gojira, which he states is not a correct translation itself and goes into details as to why (he then points out that Toho is actually the one that translated the filmís title to Godzilla for the American release.) Itís an absolutely fascinating track, and a great amount of fun. He covers a lot, rarely stops or pauses, and amazingly he still has more to talk about as Criterion includes another commentary track by Kalat for the American reworking of the film. (Oddly this is one of the few releases from Criterion that contains a note addressing that the statements made in the commentary do not reflect the rights holders, in this case Toho and Classic Media. Iím not sure why they did this for this release, since Kalat is beyond ecstatic about the film and never says anything overly bad, but Iím assuming itís a condition of Criterion licencing the film from Toho, who are overly protective of the Godzilla brand.)
The entire 80-minute ďAmericanizedĒ version of the film, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, is presented in a rather sharp looking 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer. For those unfamiliar itís a bizarre, ďAmericanizedĒ edit put together by Terry Morse. At its most basic the Japanese version was chopped up and edited down (thereís probably only 50-or-so minutes remaining from the original film) with new footage put in with American actors, most notably Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin, who just happens to be in Tokyo when everything goes down. The narrative and structure is completely different, scenes are cut down drastically, and some plot points are missing. Itís also pretty clumsy in how it mixes the new material with the material from the film, with Raymond Burrís material awkwardly cut to and from, and Burr pretty much limited to just watching the going-ons and asking for translations. Some of the Japanese is dubbed over, and when Burr and an actor from the original film, like Takeshi Shimura, who wasnít available for shooting in the States, have to share a screen all we get is Burrís mug and the back of someoneís head who is obviously not Shimura. Itís incredibly awkward and pretty bad but still a fascinating specimen if only for the editing which delivers a completely different film.
The film also looks very good and the American sequences actually look better than the sequences from the original film since I can only assume they had better film stock. These sequences are pretty clean with a few issues remaining, like some debris and a stray hair here and there. The material from the original film on the other hand looks pretty rough, much worse than what we get for the original film's presentation on this disc. The transfer looks very sharp throughout most of it, looking softer during some of the moments from the original footage. The transfer shows some more obvious compression noise but itís not overly distracting and no other artifacts hamper the viewing.
And as mentioned previously Criterion goes a step further and includes yet another audio commentary by Kalat. I was expecting this one to primarily compare the two versions, point out differences, and possibly put it down, but Kalat also has a respect for this version and gets into far more about the film and the distribution of foreign films at the time. He spends a lot of time talking about the poor distribution of films from other countries in the States and how Joseph E. Levine was able to get certain films deemed too arty (like Bicycle Thieves and Rome Open City) to play successfully in the States, which, to the scorn of many today Iím sure, involved dubbing the films. But Kalat defends this method, stating at the time when one considered the costs to dub a film, as opposed to subtitling them, itís obvious Levine had faith in these films and wanted them to have a wider audience. I guess I donít fully buy dubs but I see his point, so when he made his argument about how the ďAmericanizationĒ of Godzilla was possibly a good thing it was a little easier for me to swallow: if they didnít do what they did thereís a good chance the film wouldnít have found the audience it did, which would lead to that audience eventually discovering the original version. On top of this Kalat talks about Raymond Burr, how scenes were set up and sets were duplicated, and of course still points out the differences. Again, like the other track, itís a rich, well argued, and entertaining track, even if you canít find yourself agreeing with everything.
This section also includes the trailer for the American version.
Moving on to the remaining supplements we next get a collection of interviews with the cast and crew, most recorded for this edition in 2011, starting with a 13-minute one with Akira Takarada, who plays Ogata in the film. He talks about first receiving the script and thinking he was going to be the star, only to realize early on the reality was that Godzilla was the star. He expresses his excitement at working with Takeshi Shimura as well as working with the effects, meaning a lot of the time he had to react to things that werenít actually there. Itís a decent, charming interview, but I have to admit I found the next one, with Haruo Nakajima, who was the one underneath the Godzilla costume, a bit more was intriguing. As other supplements on this disc address, including the commentary, Nakajima points out that a lot of planning actually went into his performance and the destruction of the city, including getting the movements of the monster down, trying to make it looks as real as possible. He talks in great detail about the difficulties of working in the costume and then the films that followed. Itís entertaining but itís sadly only 10-minute long.
Effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai spend 30-minutes talking about the various effects, including the multiple versions of the costume (the original started out at 220 lbs.) and then the model sets of course. They also talk about many of the optical effects, like Godzillaís glowing back, and then what it was like working at Toho. Filled with photos and sketches and storyboards, itís a rather intriguing look at the rather innovative effects that went into the film.
The previous three were recorded in 2011 but the last one, a 51-minute interview with composer Akira Ifukube, was recorded in 2000. Itís lengthy and can be a bit dry but he talks extensively about his career (which didnít start out in music) and his extensive work which of course includes the Godzilla score.
A 9-minute feature, which looks to come from an older DVD edition, called Photographic Effects, presents found footage showing off the original shots to many of the effects sequences and where the mattes or other optical effects were added. I must say I was rather impressed because there were many sequences where I didnít even realize an effect had been added.
Japanese film critic Tadao Sato next offers a 14-minute examination of the film and not only the audience reactions to the it in Japan, but also its impact on Japanese culture and how it responded to many of the fears the country was feeling after the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and recent incidents involving the States testing H-Bombs not far from the coast of Japan. He also thinks it holds up well, bringing up the 1998 remake to explain why, and talks about the sympathy he always felt towards the monster. Another great addition.
And then finally we get an illustrated essay called The Unluckiest Dragon by Greg Pflugfelder. Running less than 10-minutes he goes over the incident that inspired the first section of the film, where sailors on a fishing vessel were exposed to high amounts of radiation after Americans tested an H-Bomb nearby. All members of the crew got sick, one eventually dying months later. From here Plugfelder then goes over the political turmoil that occurred after the incident and then gets into other films that were influenced by the incident. This was mentioned throughout the supplements so it was nice to get a full look at it, complete with photos.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer for the original Japanese version of the film.
J. Hoberman, (former) senior film critic for the Village Voice, provides a great essay about both versions of the film in the included, surprisingly skimpy booklet. Criterion also gets creative with their packaging, offering a surprise when one folds out the digipak book.
Overall itís an extensive, incredibly comprehensive release with some incredible material. Honestly I probably would have been just happy with the American version and the Kalat commentaries. Criterion went all out with this edition and it really pays off. Everything on here is worth the time going through. 10/10