Criterion Cuts: “Godzilla”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Which is certainly the case for this one. Today’s movie is a movie I owned on DVD before it hit Criterion, and picked up on Blu-Ray after they had gone and done a proper restoration for the Criterion release. Glad I did, because the quality difference is night and day. There’s nothing quite so wondrous as seeing a restored movie you know reasonably well with new eyes. It’s a little like proper time travel, returning to when the film was new and (in this case) monsters walked the earth.

Godzilla (1954)

Forget Matthew Broderick. Forget that cartoon with Godzookie. Forget Rodan and Ghidora. Forget the two ladies who show up and sing a song to Mothra. Forget even Gamera, friend to all children. Before kaiju was a genre in its own right, and before it earned a justified reputation for scifi camp, there was nothing. And then there was Godzilla.

To be fair, that’s actually not entirely true. There was the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which in 1953 put Ray Harryhausen on the stage a visual effects pioneer in a story about a dinosaur being awoken from undersea ice due to atomic testing. And a rerelease of King Kong in 1952 had managed to surpass the box office of the original release. The public, already starting to feel the lingering effects of a world with The Bomb, were finally ready to see their worst fears projected (if only in metaphor) on the big screen.

Which is what makes the opening of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla so striking. A japanese fishing boat sits out on the open ocean. The fishermen, singing and generally having a good time, see a giant flash of light off screen before the ship burns and sinks under mysterious circumstances. To Japanese audiences in 1954, this isn’t even the work of science fiction: the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5had strayed too far to US nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in March of that very same year, the crew suffering radioctive fallout. The beginning of Godzilla isn’t an abstracted what if, but ripped from the headlines.

The first reveal of Gozilla over the mountaintop is one of the best, most sudden creature reveals in all of cinema.

As more boats suffer the same fate, a team of researchers including Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, known probably most widely for his starring role in Ikiru), who heads to Odo Island where something came ashore in the night to crush buildings. Here, he listens to the legend of a beast called Godzilla, a monster who in antiquity was considered a sea-god, given sacrifices to appease it and guarantee calm seas and successful fishing. His investigations turn up giant footprints, redolent with radiation and containing sand and small creatures not thought to exist on earth for millions of years. Just as Yamane and the villagers try to climb the hill to follow the tracks, a giant head lifts over the top of the hill, and Gozilla is revealed, quickly retreating back into the sea.

The Japanese government convenes to try to address public concerns and discuss how to respond to the threat of this beast, thankfully all questions of whether its real or not dispensed with quickly. Instead, the movie cares much more about what could possibly be done against this ancient creature. These scenes, rife with sentiment that bureaucracy is fighting against the best interests of the people, seems just a relevant today as they did in 1954. In fact, the government’s response in the film–its concerns with the economic repercussions and saving face as being potentially more important than the individuals already suffering–isn’t that far off from Japan’s response to the Fukushima disaster last year.

Godzilla is as known for its matte work as its costuming. Here, an array of electric towers, all of which are matted into the frame halfway up.

Plans are set up to bomb the waters and construct giant electrified pylons around Tokyo Bay, where Godzilla is supposed to make landfall. Dr. Yamane, however, is convinced that none of this will do any good. Godzilla, he surmises, was unleashed from some deep underwater cavern by nuclear explosion. If he could survive an explosion and the ensuing radiation, how could they expect Japan’s small armed response to defeat such a monster? Compounding that is Yamane’s wish to study the creature instead of killing it, looking at that same radiation resistance that makes it so dangerous a potential boon for a society already worried about nuclear destruction.

As expected, Godzilla emerges from Tokyo Bay and smashes through the defenses, laying waste to the city. Unexpectedly, the radiation that he has absorbed can apparently be channeled, a superheated radioactive breath the beast spews out melting the giant fence and setting the city ablaze as the beast crushes his way through the city in the dark of night. This scene, with its intimations of the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II (an even that cost as many lives and was nearly as scarring to the Japanese psyche as the atomic bombs), is the final full reveal of the monster, an extended sequence of a scope the first half of the movie doesn’t begin to suggest.

Godzilla about to wreck the Diet building.

The effects of Godzilla, it should be said, are something of a minor technical miracle, especially when you consider that Japanese film hadn’t really tried anything quite on this scale before. Deciding against stop motion due to the time it would take (the story goes that estimates ran as high as seven years!) Godzilla was instead a man in a monster suit, which allowed for a naturalistic movement as he stomped through and interacted with large scale models. Certainly it’s obvious that it’s a man in a suit, but like all good practical effects when that suit looms above a shot of people running down a street, or when Godzilla stomps through a river in the background and the water under the foreground bridge swells in response, it all feels very real and uniquely imposing.

This suit, and the incredibly detailed models, are stitched together with some of the best compositing and matte painting work to come out of a production until the scifi epics of the late 70s and early 80s. Godzilla regularly shares a shot with real images of cars and people, the juxtaposition of its size and the fragility of the world around it reinforced again and again through clever use of forced perspective and shot composition. In one, the foreground is no more than the silhouette of a birdcage on a windowsill, the background filled with only a fraction of Godzilla’s massive frame. And all of it made all the more terrifying through the use of incredible sound design, the night sky of Tokyo filled with the percussive drumbeat of Godzilla’s footsteps, the crumbling buildings, and the strange cold roar that has lived on in all ensuing Godzilla media.

The devastation of Godzilla's wake.

The fallout of Godzilla’s attack, once it finally retreats back into the sea, is a swath of destruction that speaks to the horrors of war Japan was still recovering from. Surviving government buildings become makeshift hospitals, overrun with refugees, parents and children alike dying in each other’s arms. The surviving main characters in the film are mobilized to help, Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko acting as a field nurse in one of these hospitals. She’s so overwhelmed by the tragedy of what she has to cope with she takes actions to provide the MacGuffin that eventually leads to the resolution of the plot: a superweapon developed in secret by her estranged fiance.

I haven’t mentioned this part of the plot so far because it is, in my estimation, the weakest part of Godzilla. Emiko is caught in a love triangle between the more heroic Ogata, who she loves, and the man she’s engaged to, Serizawa, who since the war has become more and more remote, a mad scientist with an eyepatch and a secret project. That project is called the Oxygen Destroyer, which when put in water destroys all the living things in that body of water. Serizawa is haunted by the idea that his research could become the new nuclear bomb of its age, caught between trying to find a peaceful use of his invention and terror that it might fall into the wrong hands.

A girl's choir sings for the damage done to Tokyo and for peace from Godzilla's rampage.

It’s that line of atomic fear, probably well justified, that runs throughout the entirety of Godzilla and ensures its lasting appeal even after the later films descended into camp and trivial nonsense. Whatever kaiju became, Godzilla as it first appeared when it stomped out of the water was the personification of every Japanese anxiety in the nuclear age: unstoppable progress, cascading consequences, unimaginable suffering. That they eventually embraced it and personified that symbol as a hero is worthy of its own sociological study, probably wrapped deeply in the long-term national healing process. But here there is no fun or glamour, just terror and death, the reactionary response of nature to man’s hubris.

Which is probably why on the American release all of that was basically cut out.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

I couldn’t talk about Godzilla without at least touching in brief on its American counterpart, historically significant but critically little more than a footnote. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was a film created when producers bought the US rights to Godzilla and then decided to heavily re-edit it in order to make it appeal to American audiences. What results is seen by some as a necessary evil and others as just another Hollywood attempt at whitewashing foreign cinema.

The movie starts with the emergency hospital already established in the wake of Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), is one of the many wounded. Through narration and flashback, he tells the story of how he traveled to Japan on his way to Cairo (I’m not sure in what universe people go from the US to Cairo by way of Japan, but I’m not the writer) but got caught up in the events of Godzilla’s discovery as shown in both films.

The movie is a fairly clever re-edit, inserting Burr and several other American actors into shots against the original Japanese actors, now dubbed into English. It feels vaguely disjointed, as these kinds of re-edits usually do, but it’s not picture-breaking. What is a problem, however, is how much of the cultural subtext is stripped out of the movie. The criticisms of nuclear testing, the worst of the public suffering, and the deeply rooted atomic fears? All gone, paved over in favor of a much more conventional 50s monster movie. Even Serizawa is cast not quite as a tortured scientist, but the surprise hero of the third act.

The great Takashi Shimura, known probably best for the lead role in Kurosawa's Iriku--another, wildly different humanist masterpiece about the Japanese government.

Now if this was the only extant version of Godzilla I feel everyone would be justifiably angry. And certainly there’s something to be said for the hollow tendency to rob foreign movies of their cultural heritage in order to make them palatable to the average American filmgoer. But at the same time, this was one of the first movies to release to mass audiences that touched at all on the suffering of Japan at the hands of the US during World War II, even in edited metaphor, and even a decade after the fact not-stereotyped portrayals of Japanese people in American fiction were few and far between.

Not that that excuses it, but it’s worth mentioning, because it’s not entirely without benefit that this version exists. We might not be talking about this movie today, or the character might not be a household name, if not for the inferior American version. And since it’s included with the package, it merits this small, shrugging mention. But probably not more than that.

A Final Note: Packaging Porn

I don’t normally talk about the way movies are packaged, but this is a rare exception. Criterion is known for producing attractive packaging for their movies, but the Godzilla release is above and beyond. A nice slipcase with painted art reveals a contrasting blue image that wraps around the trifold disc case. And inside that, more red, Godzilla in a fold-out pop up, too large to be contained by something as pedestrian as the demands of packaging.

It’s fantastic, maybe the best film package I’ve seen. So I’ll leave you with some shots of it, and the highest recommendation to spring for the Blu-Ray if you want the movie in your collection. It’s a great film, presented better than it likely ever will anywhere else.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Godzilla”

  1. Pingback: Toho Kaiju Monogatari – Invasion 1: Godzilla (1954) | The No-Name Movie Blog

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