Ask the average movie fan to tell you anything about Godzilla and it’s likely you’ll be greeted with a smirk and some snarky comment about cheapjack monster movies featuring wildly gesticulating actors in zipper-up-the-back suits. That culturally chauvinistic attitude on the part of a large section of the Western audience has plagued the monster in question (and his city-stomping brethren in the genre) for nearly sixty years and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. There is, however, a contingent of Western film mavens that not only holds a great fondness for the beast and his oeuvre, they also understand the roots from which the now-iconic leviathan sprang and demand for the character and the majority of its films nothing less than the respect afforded to other cinematic that seem every bit as fantastical and populist/lowbrow to the garden variety armchair movie critic. In order to change this misperception, all one has to do is sit through the first Godzilla film, 1954’s Gojira, and the just-released Criterion edition, released under the Anglicized title of Godzilla, could not be a more perfect gateway to the monster’s Ground Zero, both as the starting point of an undying franchise and as a landmark of cultural expression in the 20th century’s burgeoning atomic age.
The Japanese were the first and only society to experience the nightmare of the atomic bomb up close and personal — not once, but twice — so their viewpoint on such horrors is both unique and all too well informed. The human urge to interpret the world around us knows no cultural barriers and the first Godzilla film articulates the devastation of the bomb as filtered through a centuries-old myth base steeped in nature spirits and ogres, so it was perhaps inevitable that the atomic holocaust would be given flesh in the form of an implacable giant beast. This anthropomorphized radioactive firestorm/wrecking ball serves not only as a topical metaphor; Godzilla’s arrival and subsequent escalating course of destruction and radioactive ruin galvanize the military and scientific communities while also serving as the crux of a moral and romantic series of misfortunes surrounding Dr, Serizawa, a dour scientist (Akihiko Hirata), his fiancée, Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and Ogata, a young swain (Akira Takarada) whom Emiko prefers to her brooding betrothed. Serizawa has developed a secret project that could possibly destroy Godzilla, but he must weigh the moral and ethical implications of releasing a weapon with the potential to eclipse the atom bomb in its destructive capabilities, and the steps he has to take involving his final decision lead him to realize he must let Emiko go her own way. Emiko’s father, Dr. Yamane (the venerable Takashi Shimura), is also on hand to provide a face for the academic world’s fascination by a life form as unique as Godzilla, but even though he’s practically foaming at the mouth to obtain the beast as a live specimen for study, even he understands that such a terrible horror simply cannot be allowed to exist. With human drama, a loaded and powerful metaphor, and an instantly iconic monster unleashed upon the narrative playing field, it all added up to create a moving and indelible instant classic that stands as one of its country of origin’s most important cinematic achievements. Its international impact is such that here we are, revisiting it and continuing to discuss and analyze the work nearly six decades after its apocalyptic advent, and that alone serves to point out that Godzilla is much, much more than a mere monster movie to be consumed and forgotten like buttery matinee popcorn.
Toho, a prestige studio that also released Akira Kurosawa’s landmark Seven Samurai some eight months prior to Godzilla, afforded director Ishiro Honda a substantial budget with which to realize this epic of darkly poetic melodrama and horror, and the resulting effort is an evocative piece that Godzilla’s detractors would be utterly surprised and shocked by, were they to see the character’s inaugural entry. The narrative’s drama is far weightier than any other film in the genre up to that time — and arguably ever since — and Honda’s touches as a visual artist suit the mood to undeniable effect. The imagery of Tokyo in flames against a night sky evokes a literal Hell on earth, while Godzilla itself is possessed of a palpable physical weight, a ponderousness that in no uncertain terms conveys that the beast is relentless juggernaut, an instrument of nature’s vengeance whose vanquishing will be no easy feat. And though in a few instances we do see the monster in broad daylight, it is Godzilla’s nighttime rampages that generate the true power of the film’s classic impact. The darkness of the evening and the meager illumination provided by emergency lights lends the creature a mysterious and somewhat undefined aspect, casting Godzilla as a dire and deadly spirit spawned from man’s scientific advancement in the name of warfare and arms supremacy. As this embodiment of slow, agonizing, irradiated doom razes the city, the viewer is dragged straight down to street level by Honda’s camera and thrust among the fleeing populace, most of whom are old enough to have the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still quite fresh in their memories. Those memories rendered the events depicted absolutely horrifying for its contemporary audience, and the scores of fleeing extras seen here are quite far removed from the now-cliché hordes that ran about shouting, “Look! Godzilla!” in the sequels from the series’ golden era in the 1960’s. It’s all quite believable, personal, and shatteringly tragic. Incredibly bleak, the film’s disturbing and depressing aspects are so severe that they couldn't even be squashed by the considerably tamer (though still quite good) American version, 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters (which is also included in this set on a separate disc). Subsequent entries in the Godzilla series varied widely in quality and intent, but that’s no surprise since it’s virtually impossible to catch this kind of lightning in a bottle a second time. Many of the sequels are a lot of fun and classics in their own right, but those films are straight-up monster movies while Godzilla stands as a work of poetic, Stygian art.
Criterion has truly pulled out the stops when making this edition a must-have for Godzilla fans and fans of world cinema alike, which comes as no surprise to those familiar with the company’s previous efforts at film preservation. The whole package manages to surpass the previous prestige edition released by Classic Media in 2006, including as it does both a restored version of the original Japanese version of the film and the edited and dubbed U.S. version, a detailed booklet that features an essay by the Village Voice’s senior film critic, J.Hoberman, and a host of extras, the most illuminating of which are the commentaries on the two versions of film, provided by David Kalat, author of the indispensable A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (McFarland, 1997). The one very minor thing the buyer might care to be aware of is that the transfer does contain some slight speckling that is unavoidable because those flaws were evident in the film when it was first released, but those defects are so minor that they’d be of concern only for the most nit-picking of collectors. Rest assured that this edition is the finest possible visual presentation of the film and it is simply a must-have for all interested parties, as well as being more than worthy a look from those who scoff at what they remember as a refugee from Saturday afternoon televised B-movie showcases. Godzilla is hailed worldwide as the King as of the Monsters for good reason, and now is the time for the uninitiated to learn what the fuss is all about.