With this year’s release of the latest and very good version of “Godzilla” now would be a good time to revisit the original 1954 Japanese film that started it all. Luckily the good folks at Criterion have released a Blu-Ray edition chock full of goodies, with not only the black and white Japanese version with English subtitles, but also the 1956 Americanized version “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” for anyone who doesn’t like to read while watching Tokyo get reduced to smithereens.
Directed by Ishiro Honda, “Godzilla” (or “Gojira” for the purists) was first and foremost a very serious response to the threat of nuclear destruction. In fact, despite featuring a giant creature from the Jurassic era played on screen by a man in a suit, Honda’s film feels not so much as a monster movie, but as a serious drama with zero laughter.
At the time the country was of course still reeling from two nuclear attacks by the United States during World War II, as well as the testing of a Hydrogen bomb around Bikini Atoll that ended up poisoning the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler with radiation sickness. Consequently the opening scenes of “Godzilla” feature a bright light coming from the ocean that is not too dissimilar to a nuclear explosion. Whatever is causing these explosions is sinking several Japanese ships, greatly confusing the government.
The inhabitants of an island off the coast are certain it is a mythical monster they refer to as Gojira and when a monster does indeed rise out of the sea in the middle of the night destroying several houses, the government decides it is as good a name as any. Speaking in front of the decision makers in Tokyo, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) makes it explicitly clear this creature was awakened from its underwater slumber by nuclear testing, as evidenced by traces of radiation found in the creature’s path of destruction.
What follows is of course more and more destruction as the army tries to kill Godzilla or at least slow it down. This is not the Michael Bay style of chaos and mayhem however. If it wasn’t a giant dinosaur doing the destroying of Tokyo, the scenes could very well be part of a very serious war movie. As the city burns to the ground, a mother is shown holding her two children and tells them they will be seeing their dead father soon. After airplanes temporarily repel the monster, hospitals are set up across the city to deal with the thousands of wounded.
Godzilla may be an imagined monster, but the carnage he brings was very realistic in the minds of the Japanese people at the time. In fact such carnage is still possible today since the damn bombs are still around despite everything we know about them. Godzilla himself is not even the real monster since if it weren’t for the bombs he would still be peacefully asleep below.
In addition to the American version, which features Raymond Burr as an American journalist covering the event, the Blu-Ray also has interviews with a Japanese critic, cast members and special effect technicians. Some of those are a bit lengthy, but some of the anecdotes are quite entertaining. Akira Takarada, who played salvage ship captain Ogata, remembers introducing himself to his fellow cast members as the lead of the movie, only to be promptly corrected and told Godzilla was the lead.
A featurette detailing the film’s photographic effect is a treat for special effects buff, while the audio essay “The Unluckiest Dragon” details the history of the fishing boat that was irradiated by the H-bomb.
The special effects are of course ancient by today’s standards, but the destruction wrought by the original “Godzilla” and the bombs that aroused him from his slumber are as scary as ever.