Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Godzilla: The Criterion Blu-ray

My history with Godzilla (1954) is all but non-existent. The last time I saw the film – the American version known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, starring Raymond Burr – I was probably nine and it was on TV on a Saturday afternoon. So far back was this, and so ignorant was I, that upon receiving this Blu-ray, I was mildly shocked to learn that the movie was in black and white, and not in color as I’d (for whatever dubious reasons) remembered it! Obviously I’d never seen the original Japanese version of the film - how few Americans have? – nor, up until this disc was announced, did I even know it existed. So yeah, that’s heaping loads of in the dark, isn’t it? Especially for a movie guy like me. What can I say? I’ve always been more of a King Kong kinda guy.

However, I have numerous friends for whom all this Godzilla and Toho stuff is a fucking religion (Toho’s the studio that produces all the Japanese giant monster movies), and out of respect for their tastes I wanted to find out more via this disc. One of my friends once said to me, “The way you are about Doctor Who is the way I am about Toho movies.” In my head, I probably said something along the lines of “How dare you compare that nonsense with the holy grail of sci-fi television?!?!” Well, Lee, I get it now…but we’ll come to that shortly.

The other, perhaps more immediate reason this disc was a draw, is that it’s Criterion. Criterion means something – actually, it can mean a number of things, but in this case it means that loads of people like me, who’ve dismissed the Godzilla concept as little more than “man in suit” over the years, will be experiencing this movie for real, for the first time. Criterion is the mark of quality for film aficionados, and this exact same set, with the very same content, could be released on another label, and it wouldn’t get a tenth the attention it’s going to get by being a Criterion disc.

So if I once was blind, but now I can see…what is there to see? A surprisingly well-crafted parable for Japanese nuclear paranoia following the wartime bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only barely disguised as a monster movie. Disguised? Parable?? Godzilla is probably neither. It hangs these themes out in plain sight, and even builds its storyline around them. The original 1933 King Kong is narratively, by comparison, kid stuff. This is serious science fiction, even if the science is pretty bad (Oxygen Destroyer?!).

Takashi Shimura as Dr. Yamane
What isn’t at all bad, however, is the drama of Godzilla, which is given able support by its four lead actors. Takashi Shimura, who in the same year starred in Seven Samurai for Akira Kurosawa (learn more about the numerous Toho/Kurosawa overlaps on the commentary tracks), plays Dr. Yamane, the man the country turns to when Godzilla first attacks. He theorizes that the creature is some long dormant prehistoric relic, awoken and mutated by nuclear testing and fallout. Despite the creature’s destructive capabilities, Yamane believes the creature should be studied, not destroyed. Shimura plays Yamane with an ashen face throughout the picture, as though he’s well aware of the conundrum he purports to believe in. It’s a powerful performance, from a guy who was one of the great actors of the day in Japan, yet he may not give the movie’s most interesting performance.

(L-R) Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata
No, that honor must be bestowed upon the movie’s other “mad” scientist, Dr. Serizawa, played by Akihiko Hirata, who is one third of the film’s love triangle. This eye-patch wearing genius concocts a doomsday weapon of sorts that could be used against Godzilla, but like many such scientists, his creation has driven him over the edge. To use or not to use, that is, well, it’s one of the dilemmas Serizawa must face. He’s also engaged to Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), who’s drifting away from him and into the arms of the film’s “hero,” Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). Hero is placed in quotation marks, because Ogata is the hero in concept only. He’s very much the stock good guy that amounts more to an ideal than a solid idea, and yet he serves his purpose in the grand scheme of the triangle. Kochi and Takarada both do fine work, but the filmmakers are more interested in exploring the ramifications of Godzilla’s existence through the two scientists, which, again, emphasizes this movie’s place in the world of sci-fi.

After watching this movie, it’s easy to understand how an empire was built on the concept. This is a moody, sometimes unnerving think piece, as much as it is popcorn entertainment – a perfect fusion of two very different types of films, thanks to the vision of director and co-screenwriter Ishiro Honda. To think of it as merely “man in suit” does it a huge disservice. One scene continues to haunt me every time I think back on it. It’s during Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo, in which he seems hell bent on destroying everyone and everything to do with the city. A mother trembles on the street, cradling her young children, as the city falls apart around them. She comforts them the only way she knows how: “Don’t worry, we’ll be with daddy soon” - a reference to an apparently deceased husband and father. It’s a chilling moment that would be perfectly at home in a movie about nuclear annihilation (or any number of other types of disasters), but instead it’s in this movie about a giant, radiation-breathing lizard, and it’s morbidly serious, and speaks of how deeply this movie can be felt, and how seriously it can be taken.

However, let’s not forget the undeniable sense of fun the movie also has. Just the sheer joy one can get out of the filmmaking, and the knowledge that this movie was the first of its kind, is exhilarating. By and large, the Godzilla creature is convincing, as men in suits go, but what do I know? My religion is old Doctor Who, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. I did [re]learn a little something profound from this disc, and that’s the value of creating a heightened sense of reality, versus just trying to make something look as real as possible. The Godzilla movies seem to largely succeed because of this philosophy, and film must surely be a better art form for it. I believed in this creature and this scenario far more so than I did in the ones that Roland Emmerich unveiled in his ‘90s big budget Hollywood version of Godzilla, a movie that was so forgettable I had to head to Google image search just to find out what its monster looked like, so unmemorable a creature it was they created. Everybody knows what the classic Godzilla looks like.

All this space taken up and I’ve barely mentioned Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), which also appears on this disc. Director Terry Morse took Honda’s version and reworked it for American audiences, by removing scenes, dubbing the principal actors, and most importantly, by shooting new footage with Raymond Burr (and several other actors) as reporter Steve Martin, a new character inserted into the action as an observer. There’s no question it was a valiant effort, and it quite rightly has its apologists, for myriad reasons, but after watching Honda’s original film, it can’t help but come up short, probably because we know so much about filmmaking today that all of the little nips and tucks are painfully obvious to even the untrained eye. In any case, Criterion has put it alongside the original version, and given it its proper due, which is as it should be, because, from the U.S. standpoint, it’s a huge part of the history of this story, and it would be unthinkable to not include it for American audiences.

Do be warned: These movies look far from perfect, so if you’re expecting crystal clear imagery, you won’t find it here. They’re loaded with scratches, although it appears Criterion did the very best they could with what they had to work with. Apparently these movies looked like this back in theatres in the ‘50s. Personally I found it all rather charming, and perfectly at home here, but I do feel the need to warn first-time Godzilla viewers to keep their expectations in check. (Note: The images in this article are not screengrabs from the Blu-ray.)

Blu-ray Extras: By a long shot, the star extras here are the two commentary tracks (one on each version of the movie) from film historian (i.e. “Godzilla nerd”) David Kalat. This guy is smart, well-spoken, and occasionally even funny, and takes listeners/viewers on an informative ride over about a three-hour period. If you’re into discovering more about this fictitious universe, as well as the real world making of it, Kalat’s tales and insights will keep you thoroughly entertained and enlightened for the duration of not one, but two movies.

Beyond the commentaries, there are new interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima (the guy in the rubber suit), which each run about 10 or 15 minutes, as well as special effects techs Yoshiro Irie and Eizo Kaimai, which runs about a half hour. Also present is a 50-minute, undated interview with composer Akira Ifukube. There’s also a new interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Soto, in which he discusses the film’s cinematic place in history. A short featurette details the photographic effects of Godzilla, while “The Unluckiest Dragon” is a video essay detailing the history of the fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5, which was part of the inspiration for the start of the film. Finally, there are trailers for each version of the movie, and a booklet featuring an essay by J. Hoberman.