Godzilla, the creature who was baptized in the fire of the H-bomb and survived. This film icon that’s crossed international and generational lines has been with us for nearly 60 years. Films, video games, television, and music videos inside Japan and out continue to draw inspiration from it. Now the 1954 film that started it all has been added to the Criterion Collection in a new digital restoration on DVD and Blu-ray.
This film has no giant butterflies to contend with as later installments do. But what’s here is a very poignant statement on the dangers of nuclear proliferation, especially in regards to a nation that has suffered from it like no other.
It all starts with a scene that not-so-subtly references the real-life Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident, in which America tested a hydrogen bomb in the Japanese seas while a fishing boat was in the vicinity (one of the crew eventually died from the radiation). Another boat is sent out to investigate, and it too is destroyed. But not from the hydrogen bomb.
Godzilla, a prehistoric creature who had been trapped beneath the ocean floor, is now freed by the blast. His rampage ultimately brings him to Tokyo, where the city is no match for the monster. The scenes that show the aftermath for the victims are very moving. If it wasn’t clear enough already whatGodzilla metaphorically represents, it comes through here.
And yet, the character has an element of sympathy to him. After all, he was disturbed from his resting place and did nothing wrong in the first place for that to happen. His anger against humanity is justifiable, albeit misdirected. However, being the primitive animal he is, he was no way of knowing who truly is responsible and deserves his ferocity. He cannot distinguish good from evil, innocent from guilty; he attacks them all the same. Much like a nuclear bomb, really.
You may have noticed that I have Raymond Burr mentioned in the cast. He is the star of a reedit made for America called Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, which is included here as an extra. Scenes are taken from the original (except now dubbed) and events play out practically the same, but with added footage of Burr as an American reporter covering the story as it develops. Although the emotional impact is still present, this is by far inferior to the original film. Still, it’s nice to have here.
Both films are given commentaries from David Kalat, a film historian who is the author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. Other extras include interview segments, anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes, with star Akira Takarada, who plays Ogata; Haruo Nakajima, the actor in the Godzilla suit; Akira Ifukube, the score composer; special effects technicians Yoshio Irie (model builder) and Eizo Kaimai (Godzilla suit co-constructor); and film critic Tadao Sato. Also present are a featurette on the photographic effects introduced by effects director Koichi Kawakita and effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka, the illustrated audio essay The Unluckiest Dragon read by Greg Pflugfelder of Columbia University, and the trailers for both movies. Finally, there’s a booklet with an essay by critic J. Hoberman.
Godzilla is much more than a mere monster movie. It will easily endure for 60 years more, and beyond.