Review: The Criterion Collection’s GODZILLA
On January 24th, the prestigious Criterion Collection released GODZILLA (ゴジラ, Gojira, 1954) and its companion film GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) on DVD and Blu-ray in a fantastic special edition.
For Criterion to release GODZILLA represents one of the highest honors the film has ever received and truly solidifies its status as not just a classic monster movie, but also an important cinematic achievement. Few films can lay claim to such an honor. Godzilla fans all over should be proud that this film joins a series that includes most of Akira Kurosawa’s output.
GODZILLA is presented in a pillarboxed 1080p transfer in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and is sourced from a 35mm fine grain print struck from the original camera negative. The image is much cleaner than all past editions (including Toho’s own Japanese Blu-ray), but fortunately Criterion didn’t go overboard and remove every single scratch and speck. They showed good judgment by leaving in all of the burnt-in damage that gives the film its characteristic “rough” look. The film has never looked more detailed, thanks to a fine Spirit Datacine scan and Criterion’s wise decision to leave the grain intact. The company should be commended for their sublime restoration of this important film.
It should be noted that the film is completely unedited, featuring the Japan Coast Guard acknowledgement at the beginning that was cut from both the Classic Media and British Film Institute editions, and includes all original optical fades unlike the Classic Media edition. It also comes with well-translated, removable subtitles.
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS’ inaugural HD transfer is a restoration just as important as the one for GODZILLA, as it represents an even larger leap in quality (all previous editions of the reworked version were from a video master made in the early 1980’s) and presents for the first time on home video the original 1956 theatrical version. It is offered in a pillarboxed 1080p transfer in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio and is sourced predominantly from a 35mm fine grain print and a 16mm dupe negative (the latter of which this reviewer helped Criterion locate).
Because the US filmmakers had access to evidently sharper film stock and a better film lab, the Terry Morse-directed scenes look extremely crisp with little damage. The Honda-directed material, though not as free of dirt, still looks cleaner than before and benefits from a detailed image. The image has so little cropping that the corners and edges of the frame are sometimes exposed. As with GODZILLA, the grain structure is intact. The ending credits sequence is damage-free and in proper 1.37:1 instead of squashed widescreen like on Classic Media’s 2006 presentation.
At Toho’s request, this presentation does not include the opening credits screen seen in some 16mm prints of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. It is assumed that they were created specifically for a TV version distributed up through the 1970’s; this has been corroborated by a mint 16mm print of GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS struck in 1956 that does not have the screen and mirrors Criterion’s restoration.
It should be acknowledged that both films are windowboxed on the DVD edition.
Both films feature restored 1.0 mono mixes. The sound is very crisp and clear on both, with composer Akira Ifukube’s score coming through particularly nicely. The female chorus and rhythmic stomps during the end credits on KING OF THE MONSTERS do not sound muffled like on the 2006 Classic Media DVD.
Criterion has included a large assortment of bonus features, most produced just for this edition with a few carried over from earlier releases. Knowing that two other English-friendly editions (the Classic Media and the BFI) are in print, Criterion chose to include many unique features while avoiding treading the same ground. They excel here, creating a special edition that intentionally complements the other releases. Fans should hold on to the Classic Media and BFI editions for this reason. The BFI DVD, for example, has a fascinating short from 1954 called THE JAPANESE FISHERMAN, while the Classic Media DVD includes a featurette on the creation of the Godzilla suit, a detailed look at the development of GODZILLA’s story, an interview with Terry Morse Jr. and a very rare TV spot for GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.
AUDIO COMMENTARIES: Two commentaries by film scholar David Kalat are included, one for each version of the film. What really stands out about both of these commentaries is Kalat’s ability to captivate the listener with fascinating symbolic analysis and historical context that give whole new perspectives about the two films. His delivery manages to be formal and entertaining simultaneously. Listeners will find Kalat’s audio commentaries to be very rewarding listens and great companions to the earlier, more information-based commentaries by Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski and Keith Aiken.
Kalat, however, does make two small errors. He pronounces the “Eiji” in Eiji Tsuburaya incorrectly, and cites that GODZILLA cost about $1 million US to make (the latter mistake is repeated in J. Hoberman’s essay). The budget, in reality, was about $167,000 and was the third most expensive film at Toho in 1954. These are, ultimately, very forgivable mistakes and do not detract from the otherwise enjoyable commentaries.
The DVD includes chapters to help the listener more easily find the key points of each commentary. The timeline feature serves the same function on the Blu-ray.
CAST AND CREW INTERVIEWS: Criterion provides new interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai plus an interview with Akira Ifukube recorded in 2000 for the film’s first Japanese DVD release. All of the interviewees share a generous helping of information and memories related to the film. Ifukube’s lecture about what film scores can convey provides great insight into the late composer’s philosophies about music.
UNUSED FOOTAGE FROM GODZILLA: EXAMINING COMPOSITE IMAGES: This is an interesting featurette that examines composite shots from the film, most of which are nearly seamless. These are probably some of the most convincing effects in the film and have definitely stood the test of time. The featurette really makes you appreciate the artistry and technical skill that went into GODZILLA’s production.
It should be noted that this is an excerpt of a longer featurette from Toho Video’s Godzilla: Final Box DVD collection from 2005. The complete featurette also included material from GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA.
INTERVIEW WITH TADAO SATO: This interview with film critic Tadao Sato is another great feature. It gives English-speaking viewers a glimpse of a contemporary Japanese perspective of the film.
THE UNLUCKIEST DRAGON: This audio essay audio essay featuring historian Greg Pflugfelder provides a lot of great background information about the real-life tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru that inspired the film.
TRAILERS: GODZILLA’s original Japanese theatrical trailer is presented in 1080i and is evidently an upscale of a lower resolution, possibly analog source. Nevertheless, it is a welcome addition and includes removable English subtitles. The US theatrical trailer for GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS is also here in 1080p and looks almost as good as the US version itself.
POETRY AFTER THE A-BOMB: Critic J. Hoberman’s essay included in the booklet is an interesting read and is noteworthy in that it compares GODZILLA to Kurosawa’s I LIVE IN FEAR.
This is one of the most impressive and highly anticipated kaiju home video releases of all time. It reminds me of the film’s production in that it was a vast undertaking and a labor of love that would never have been possible without the synergy of a group of incredible, talented people. I give my warmest regards to the Criterion Collection for crediting me in the disk’s booklet and sending me an advance copy of the Blu-ray, and to Curtis Tsui and Keith Aiken for their correspondence during the Blu-ray’s production.
For more information on The Criterion Collection’s GODZILLA Blu-ray and DVD releases, please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan: