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Gojira

Gojira(1956)

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Criterion's new Blu-ray release regards Ishiro Honda's original Godzilla as a major landmark of postwar atomic anxiety. Ten years ago the original Japanese Gojira drew a flurry of journalistic interest on its belated American theatrical release in America. Audiences were impressed by its overt references to Hiroshima and the utter destruction of Tokyo. A fine DVD from 2006 double-billed Gojira (the original Japanese title) with its highly successful American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Criterion's Blu-ray gives us new HD transfers of both versions, along with commentaries and interview extras that address questions that have bothered film fans for fifty years. Why would the only country ever to suffer nuclear attacks produce such a masochistic fantasy about their national trauma?

This original Japanese-language Gojira balances its spectacular monster rampage against human issues and post-atomic moral questions. Japanese sailors are irradiated and their ship sunk by an unknown flash of light and heat that continues to destroy other vessels. Searching for the cause, scientist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) travels to a tiny fishing island, and is confronted by a colossal water dragon. It soon comes ashore to march through Tokyo, leaving a broad wake of utter destruction. Conventional weapons prove useless, which puts the mysterious, secretive Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) in a bind: he's invented a new device he calls an "Oxygen Destroyer" but refuses to use it against the monster. He feels morally compromised: if the device's existence is revealed, governments will rush to exploit it as another weapon of mass destruction. Serizawa's fiancée Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kôchi) begs the scientist to reconsider.

The scenes of Godzilla crushing Tokyo underfoot thrilled American youngsters of the 1950s. Toho would later expand and tame the franchise, adding new monsters and adapting the formula to create a series of increasingly juvenile epics. But every schoolchild of the late '50s knew that Godzilla was a symbolic substitute for The Bomb, and was curious why the Japanese would make such a movie. According to the esteemed Japanese critic Tadao Sato, the vision of Tokyo once again reduced to ashes allowed Japanese audiences to deal with the communal guilt still felt over the war. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka did not copy the theme of Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a popular movie about a dinosaur revived by a bomb test. Godzilla is not a dinosaur but a new force of nature, a dragon that breathes Atomic fire.

Godzilla was made soon after the end of the American Army's occupation of Japan. Rather than address the wartime nuclear bombings, events still spoken of in hushed tones, producer Tanaka seized upon the topical Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which a Japanese tuna boat defied warnings to stay clear of the Bikini Atoll, unaware that the U.S. was testing its new Hydrogen bomb. As critic David Kalat points out in his Criterion commentary, Gojira restages the event, substituting the radioactive monster for the nuclear blast. The horror-beast rising from the Pacific to threaten Tokyo is an enormous political statement: for much of the world, America will forever be seen as an Atomic aggressor.

Seen in this rejuvenated presentation, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects look better than ever. Considering the limited technical means available in 1954, the resourceful Toho technicians found clever ways to combine their rubber Man-in-suit-a-saur with live action and impressive miniatures. Hand-rotoscoped mattes are employed to composite the beast into several shots. Stop-motion animation sees use in a couple of shots as well. What's most impressive is the depth of focus maintained on the miniatures, even with the camera rolling at four-times speed.

The "towering titan of terror" is unlike the giant monsters in American movies. Godzilla is not a dinosaur or giant animal, but a cultural fantasy. He rises from the sea not to eat or spawn, but for the express purpose of annihilating Tokyo. Godzilla is a post-modern version of a traditional Yokai demon, writ large. And that billowing, notably non-reptilian hide? He's meant to look like a walking atomic mushroom cloud!



Ishiro Honda's sober and respectful direction makes its anti-nuke statement without resorting to moralizing speeches. The specter of the bombings is always present, even if no spokesperson steps forward to deliver an overt author's message. Godzilla involves us in its human drama, even if the characters are orchestrated along familiar lines. The scientist has a beautiful daughter (Momoko Kochi, with her endearing, Gene Tierney-like overbite) who must choose between an eager young salvage operator and her fiancé, a morbidly-obsessed scientist who does bad things to goldfish in his Rotwang-like mad lab. All that is missing from the American formula is a representative of the military.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Godzilla improves substantially on all earlier video versions. The blizzards of dust specks that marred earlier releases have been all but eliminated. Many scenes still carry fine scratches, but all the major damage has been repaired.

Criterion disc producer Curtis Tsui is responsible for some of the label's best fantasy discs, including Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face. His extras for Godzilla are on the same level as those for any other great work of world cinema.

First up is the 1956 American re-cut, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the version most commonly shown in other international markets. Director Terry Morse skillfully shoehorned additional scenes with Raymond Burr into the narrative. Burr's fly-on-the-wall reporter narrates the movie, aided by a newly imposed flashback structure. Rather than a pastiche, the American version is well written and cleverly assembled. This transfer is from pre-print film materials and looks far better than earlier videos. It includes the original Trans-World logo and closing credit crawl, albeit from a 16mm source. Author David Kalat provides an impassioned pair of commentaries for both feature versions. He explains what the original Godzilla represented to Japanese audiences, and examines the strange cultural re-mix of the American version.

Critic Tadao Sato explains some of the political context of the time in Japan, and offers his personal analysis of Japan's monster-who-became-a-friend. Other interviews give us input from the beloved composer Akira Ifukube, actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, the man who played Godzilla inside the rubber suit. Two effects technicians also comment, but an effects-oriented featurette has only a few examples to offer. Much better is a piece about the terrible fate of the sailors of the Lucky Dragon 5. With last year's near nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Godzilla's anti-nuke stance is more relevant than ever.

Trailers for both movies are included. The soundtrack for the King of the Monsters trailer throws an uninterrupted tirade of hyperbole at the audience, that must have left schoolboys in 1956 with their mouths hanging open:

"Incredible, Unstoppable Titan of Terror!" "Is Godzilla fantasy, or a prophecy of doom?" "Fantastic beyond comprehension, beyond compare! Astounding beyond belief!" "Terror staggers the mind as the gargantuan creature of the sea surges up on a tidal wave of destruction to wreak vengeance on the Earth!" "Civilization crumbles as its death rays blast a city of 6 million from the face of the Earth!" "Mightiest Monster! Mightiest Melodrama of them All!"


Criterion's packaging sports colorful, imaginative cover art, which has instant possibilities as a commercial poster. As a special surprise, the folding disc holder opens up like a pop-up book to display a fiery image of "Big G" in all his glory. I imagine that some of the more fanatical Godzilla fans will be incensed that the monster image is not the original Godzilla, but a leaner, meaner design from the 1990s. Critic Sato opines that the fast-moving American Godzilla from 1998 had little appeal, and after seeing the Criterion extras we understand why. The 1998 monster is just a big lizard coming home to roost in New York City, like Ray Harryhausen's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Toho's original Gojira is a symbolic demon from the ghost-subconscious, the Stuff that Atomic Dreams are Made Of.

For more information about Godzilla, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Godzilla, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson
When a planned co-production with Indonesia fell through in early 1954, Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found himself urgently needing a new project to fill a hole in Toho Studios' release schedule. Learning about the success of the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and recalling the popularity of a recent reissue of King Kong, Tanaka hit upon the notion of making a giant monster movie. Toho's resident special effects wizard, Eiji Tsuburaya, was thrilled by the idea; an enthusiastic fan of Kong, Tsuburaya had long dreamed of making his own monster spectacular. The young director assigned to the project, Ishirô Honda, viewed the story as an opportunity to make a statement about the atomic bomb. The combination of Tanaka, Tsuburaya and Honda proved a fortuitous blending of talents. Together, the three became the main architects of the very first kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) and a science fiction classic: Gojira, better known in the United States under the title of its American incarnation, Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). The original Japanese version has now been released on U.S. DVD for the first time by Classic Media in a deluxe 2-disc edition that also includes the American recut.

The story: A series of mysterious shipping disasters occur off the coast of Japan, with the few survivors telling fantastic stories of the sea bursting into flame. When citizens of nearby Odo Island also report strange occurrences, paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) leads a team to investigate and discovers huge radioactive footprints, one of which contains a living prehistoric trilobite. The source of the footprints, an enormous amphibious dinosaur, appears and Yamane is able to bring back photographic proof of the creature's existence. Yamane dubs the monster "Godzilla"after an Odo Island legend, and theorizes that it was revived or disturbed by recent atomic tests. The Japanese navy drops depth charges to kill it, but before long Godzilla appears in Tokyo harbor and attacks the city. A second attack, far more devastating than the first, follows days later and leaves the city in ruins. With all conventional weapons having failed, Japan appears doomed. Dr. Yamane's daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) knows the country's only hope is a secret device, the Oxygen Destroyer, developed by her fiancé, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). With the future of Japan and perhaps the world at risk, Emiko and the man she truly loves, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), must persuade Serizawa to break his vow never to use his creation's horrible destructive power.

The above synopsis makes Gojir sound little different from other 1950's monster movies. The key difference is in the film's tone. American science fiction movies of the period almost always used the atom bomb or radiation as an explanation for the origin of the featured monster, but it was seldom more than a story device for lazy screenwriters; anxiety over the nuclear age was merely a subtext in shallow films that had no ambition beyond delivering cheap monster thrills. Honda and co-screenwriter Takeo Murata moved the subtext front and center, and decided to treat Godzilla as a serious metaphor for the horrors of the atom bomb. The tone is kept consistently somber and often grim. Radiation is no mere story gimmick, but is presented as a threat in itself, a modern-day plague with Godzilla its deadly carrier. The opening of the film, in which a fishing trawler is destroyed by Godzilla, is a direct reference to the "Lucky Dragon No. 5" incident from March of 1954, in which a Japanese fishing boat strayed too close to an American atom bomb test and the crew became sick after exposure to radioactive ash. On Odo Island, Yamane discovers that water in a village well is radioactive, and the villagers are warned not to drink from it. Later, after Godzilla's attack, a doctor is shown examining a child with a Geiger counter and gravely shaking his head.

The dialogue and imagery often evoke the destructive force of the atom bomb and, more broadly, modern warfare in general. When there is talk of preparing for Godzilla's attack, a couple on a train wearily recalls wartime bomb shelters. Long shots of Tokyo in flames remind one of the firebombing of that city during the waning days of World War II, and the smoldering ruins suggest the utter devastation of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. A significant amount of time is devoted to showing the wounded being treated at emergency hospitals. Of all the 1950's giant monster movies, Gojira is the only one to emphasize the death toll caused by the creature. This is not just exciting spectacle-this is injury, suffering, loss and death.

Honda and Murata use the visual and verbal references to atomic warfare to stress the peril the modern world faces; to dramatize their perspective on the situation, they use the characters of Dr. Yamane and Dr. Serizawa. Dr. Yamane understands the threat Godzilla represents, but also recognizes an unparalleled opportunity to learn. He wants to know how and why Godzilla survived the nuclear blast that roused him, and hopes that knowledge will help mankind survive in the event of an atomic war. His pleas for an opportunity to study Godzilla are ignored, and Yamane becomes an isolated and depressed figure as the military prepares to kill the monster. In essence, society, faced with a new form of threat (the atomic age), relies on old methods of conflict resolution (traditional warfare) that have been rendered obsolete and are thus doomed to fail. Science and understanding, as represented by Yamane, are the true hope of the future, but face resistance and skepticism.

The character of Dr. Serizawa is used to explore issues of scientific ethics and responsibility. It is hinted that Serizawa's wartime experiences have made him sensitive to the possibility of his research being used for weapons, so he believes he is doing the right thing by keeping knowledge of the Oxygen Destroyer from the world. The problem is that Serizawa has so isolated himself from human contact that he has lost his perspective. After Godzilla's attack, he's still at work in his untouched lab, seemingly unphased by what has happened; when Emiko arrives, he smiles, thinking she's there to discuss their marriage. Emiko and Ogata have to literally force him to face what is transpiring outside by making him look at scenes of devastation broadcast on television. Only when he reconnects with humanity in this fashion does Serizawa finally take steps to save Japan while preventing his knowledge from being misused. Honda and Murata's belief that scientists can and should take total responsibility for their creations today seems a little naïve, but the passion and sincerity of their convictions is striking, and unique in the giant monster genre.

Bringing Honda's vision of living atomic horror to the screen was the responsibility of Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects unit. The quality of their work is variable and some of it will strike modern audiences as quaint, but overall the effects remain exciting and memorable-an impressive accomplishment considering that the Japanese film industry had no tradition of monster movies, Tsuburaya's budget was modest and much of the work was trial-and-error. Just about every technique that existed at the time is employed: miniatures, matte paintings, animation, stop-motion, puppets, etc. Standout sequences include the monster's attack on the train, with fleeing crowds matted in as he approaches, and Godzilla's confrontation with a barrier of electrical towers, during which he first uses his atomic breath. In both instances Tsuburaya and his staff successfully create a sense of the creature's massive size and power. For the main attack sequence, moodily set at night, large sections of Tokyo were reproduced in detailed miniature sets, and when buildings collapse they convey a good sense of weight. Tsuburaya and Honda pepper the attack sequence with interesting, unusual moments to keep it from being a monotonous orgy of destruction, such as Godzilla pausing to roar at birds in an aviary, a group of reporters in a tower coming face-to-face with the monster and a scene of a terrified mother reassuring her children that they are going to join their father as a building collapses on top of them. Long shots showing entire neighborhoods in flames create a sense of scope to the destruction far greater than that featured in any of the American creature features of the era. The centerpiece of the effects work, the Godzilla suit, is well designed, suggestive of a dinosaur yet different enough to be distinctive. The suit was extremely heavy and stiff, but the limitations this forced on the movements of suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka helped Godzilla appear massive and non-human.

Also helping bring Godzilla to life is the music of composer Akira Ifukube. It would be difficult to overstate the contribution his score makes to the film. By turns solemn, suspenseful and tragic, Ifukube's music brings emotional weight to scenes that otherwise might have come across as pure fantasy. It is, quite simply, the best score ever written for a giant monster movie.

The human cast of Gojira does the best they can with underwritten, sketchy roles. The mysterious, enigmatic and ultimately tragic Dr. Serizawa is the only really interesting character, and Akihiko Hirata does a good job bringing subtle shadings to the part. For example, Serizawa's decision to show Emiko the horrifying Oxygen Destroyer experiment at first glance may seem like a plot contrivance, but Hirata's performance suggests that the reclusive, work-obsessed Serizawa is attempting, in his own way, to share and grow closer with his fiancée. Takashi Shimura, familiar to American audiences from his appearances in Akira Kurosawa classics such as Ikiru (1952) and Seven Samurari (1954), gets the thankless task of having to deliver reams of expositions, but invests Dr. Yamane with the necessary authority and gravitas. Akira Takarada, who would later appear in numerous Godzilla sequels and other kaiju eiga, doesn't make a very strong impression in his first outing here. Momoko Kôchi was inexperienced when she took the role of Emiko, and unfortunately it shows in her performance.

As most movie fans know, when Gojira was brought to the United States, new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin were shot and intercut with the original footage. Since the original Japanese cut of Gojira became more widely available for viewing in the U.S. a couple of years ago, it has become fashionable to dismiss the American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, as a vulgar mutilation of a classic. Reviews and articles often accuse the American producers of "removing all the scary stuff"and excising anti-American and/or anti-nuclear content. These accusations don't hold up. In 1956, monster fans were not going to sit through a subtitled Japanese film, and the small audience for foreign films would have looked down their noses at a monster movie. In reworking the film to give it broader appeal to western audiences, director-editor Terry Morse and American screenwriter Al C. Ward didn't trash the original; they tightened the pace and inserted an American star, but they kept the tone serious, albeit with more melodramatic sensationalism and less pathos than in the Gojira cut. Most of the footage cut from the Japanese version consists of early expository scenes and scenes dealing with the Serizawa-Emiko-Ogata love triangle; the action highlights of the original (the "scary stuff") were retained, and although references to atomic testing were reduced, the implication that Godzilla is a by-product of American A-bomb tests is still present. As for removing overt anti-American sentiments, there were none in the original to remove. Ward's dialogue for the U.S. version is intelligent, with much of the voiceover narration particularly effective. Raymond Burr, best known at the time for playing heavies and still a year away from Perry Mason, plays his part with sincerity and does a good job, in spite of having to spend most of his time reacting to off-screen events and characters. Godzilla, King of the Monsters is definitely inferior to the original, but it's a respectable adaptation that proved enormously popular and was crucial in establishing Godzilla's worldwide popularity.

Classic Media's new 2-disc DVD release of Gojira gives American fans an opportunity to finally compare the two versions. The first disc contains the Japanese cut in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is a little dark, even given that much of the film is set at night, but fairly sharp and with good detail. Scratches, dirt and speckling are evident throughout, which has prompted some harsh criticism on the web. In fairness to Classic Media, much of this damage, particularly in sections with opticals, is built into the film and has been there since it was made. Digitally cleansing the film of every bit of damage wouldn't be restoring it so much as creating a version that never existed before, and producing a distorted impression in viewers of the state of Japanese optical effects in 1954. The ideal solution would have been a more moderate digital cleanup chiefly addressing the age-related damage in the live-action scenes. Audio for the Japanese version is good. The removable English subtitles have prompted some complaints because of the skinny font and bright yellow color. This reviewer had no problem with them except when the letter "l"was followed by an "o." The font tended to make this combination look like a "b", so that characters appeared to be greeting each other with a cheerful "Helb!"

The chief extra on Disc One is an excellent commentary by Ed Godziszewski, publisher of Japanese Giants magazine, and Steve Ryfle, author of Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. Focusing chiefly on the production of the film and the backgrounds of its creators, the commentary is never condescending towards its subject; it's densely detailed and serious without coming across as pretentious or dryly academic. Godziszewski also writes and narrates two featurettes, one on story development and deleted scenes, and one on the creation of the Godzilla suit. Both run approximately 12 minutes. Rounding out the extras on Disc One is the original Japanese trailer.

Disc Two contains the American version of the film. The transfer appears identical to Classic Media's prior release, except for the addition of the original End Credits, which have been absent from all prior video versions. (Still missing from this version is the original Transworld logo that opened the film.) Overall the transfer is good, but the framing is a bit tight at the top, and the audio suffers from some moderate noise and occasional distortion. Godziszewski and Ryfle return for another audio commentary, this time concentrating on how Gojira came to the U.S. and was transformed into Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Film historian Ted Newsom joins in to contribute some interesting anecdotes, and Terry Morse Jr., son of the American version's director, also participates with first-hand recollections of his father's work on the film. An American trailer is also included.

The two discs come packaged in an attractive book-like case with a Japanese-style "belly band." A 16-page booklet includes an essay by Steve Ryfle titled "Godzilla's Footprint"that presents a condensed history of the film's creation. In the coming months, Classic Media will be following this release with several Godzilla sequels, all of which will contain both the Japanese and American versions, and all featuring commentaries by kaiju eiga authorities such as Stuart Galbraith IV and David Kalat.

For more information about Gojira, visit Sony Pictures. To order Gojira, go to TCM Shopping.

by Gary Teetzel