Harry here with another item from the mysterious, vengeful swashbuckler with his look at next year's Criterion Blu-Ray of GODZILLA - and nothing says Christmas like Godzilla, right? Here ya go:
GODZILLA Criterion Blu-ray Review
Monty Cristo returns, bearing a Christmas Eve surprise for you all, dear confidants!
I am told that, in this particular situation, it is custom ‘round these parts to chant something akin to…
MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT!
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Exactly one month from today, Criterion is releasing one of their most-anticipated titles in years: Ishiro Honda’s GODZILLA. I am beyond pleased that my conspirators have smuggled an advance copy of the Blu-ray to me so that I might regale you of its glory. They went all-out on this sucker, going so far as to get the brilliant Bill Sienkiewicz to do the cover art.
At first glance, the inclusion of GODZILLA in The Criterion Collection might seem odd, even if you are among the hordes of GODZILLA fans (like myself) who are delighted that the film is getting this sort of treatment. I wonder how many people identify with the later incarnations of the character, but whom never happened to see the original 1954 film, which is gushing with social commentary and topicality. I agree with Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, who asserts in the essay in the booklet that GODZILLA is most appropriately at home next to movies like DR STRANGELOVE (among others).
The 1956 Americanization, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (also included on Criterion’s new edition), does as well. That assertion might surprise those who have decried it as a crass bastardization, which (let’s be honest) it is in quite a few respects, from bizarre editing choices to the deletion of some of the most powerful subtext.
Japan was still coming to terms with having been on the losing end of a World War, and the Hydrogen Bomb test that sets the movie in motion was an all-too-real experience for many who survived or lost people to the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The movie opens with a fishing boat and its crew caught in an H-bomb blast that awakens the titular sleeping giant.
A giant dinosaurian beast wasn’t awakened in real life, but a US H-bomb test did catch the crew of a boat called the Lucky Dragon #5 by surprise. This was major news in Japan at the time, and is certainly still remembered. I would be surprised if many Americans even knew this happened. The US involvement isn’t so much as mentioned in the US version.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
The implications of Weapons of Mass Destruction for their own sake ring through in both versions, though admittedly much more profoundly in the Japanese version. Those who think of GODZILLA as merely a series of goofy rubber monster movies are missing out on one of the most profound and important post-WWII Japanese films.
Even as laughable as some might find the editing and dubbing choices in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, upon re-watching it, I stand by my feeling that Raymond Burr gives an outstanding, sobering performance in scenes that were never part of the movie originally. After the 2009 Blu-ray from Classic Media omitted this US version, I’m glad to have it here not only in HD, but digitally restored. Speaking of restoration and all that…
Criterion did a digital restoration on both films, and the picture quality on both features is better than I’ve ever seen from either, including the restored 35mm print of GODZILLA that started making the rounds some years ago. That said, the original movie (and by extension KING OF THE MONSTERS) had a great deal of scratches, dirt, and debris in its original release prints. The source was partly the frantic nature of production and also the optical effects used throughout.
Do not expect this movie (either version) to look flawlessly crisp like Criterion’s work on titles like WAGES OF FEAR or M or SEVEN SAMURAI. Think more along the lines of the astonishingly good-looking STAGECOACH Blu-ray from a couple of years ago. In many, many instances where they would have been adding information where there never was any in its original presentation, they had the good judgment to leave well enough alone.
From the booklet of the forthcoming Criterion Collection edition of the film
The extras are everything one could hope for, from a scholarly (and yet IMMENSELY entertaining) pair of commentary tracks to far more newly-recorded interviews than one might expect from a nearly 50-year-old movie.
David Kalat wrote A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, the first truly comprehensive and analytical English-language tome on the world of kaiju movies. I have friends who come down on some Criterion commentary tracks as being too much like a recorded film studies lecture. These are the same friends who don’t know why anyone reads anymore. That said, some of their film scholar tracks do require a fairly alert mind. Kalat eliminates the need for stimulants or daytime viewing. In short, the man is a fucking hilarious and brilliant geek of the highest order.
He provides an amazingly concise and yet elaborated history of the giant monster movie, starting with KING KONG (1933) and its 1952 re-release. He goes deep into the plethora of Kurosawa connections found in Honda’s GODZILLA. He goes on at length on the birth of practical special effects on a large scale. Kalat even pish-poshes the “do we call it GODZILLA or GOJIRA? Which one is right?” argument, by declaring both as equally correct. There was a far more pretentious time in my life when I would have argued with him for no good reason other than to declare I was right. I’d like to think solid reason and logic are why I agree with him 100% in the here and now.
Here’s a nugget that Kalat drops during the US version: I had NO IDEA that James Hong (yes, Lo Pan himself!) provides most of the Japanese male overdubbing in KING OF THE MONSTERS.
If you end up buying this release, you will massively shortchange yourself if you don’t watch the films back-to-back and then re-watch them with his yack tracks on.
Only THEN should you move on to the next bits.
Next up are a series of interviews (recorded in 2011) that I almost didn’t believe when they announced this disc: Akira Takada (Ogata, the male romantic lead), Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima (THE Man in Suit!), and the pair of FX technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai. The first couple of interviews run around 10 or 15 minutes in length, and the FX guys talk for a solid half hour.
On top of that, there’s an interview from 2000 (recorded for the original Japanese DVD release) with composer Akira Ifukube that runs for nearly an hour. He talks about his career for the most part, which was born from the ashes of WWII. He has a really fascinating life story, and his insights into film music are intriguing.
Up next is a 10-minute piece examining how various visual effects were achieved, a featurette that also appears to originate from around the same timeframe as the Ifukube interview.
We then jump back forward to another 2011 interview, this time with Tadao Sato, a major Japanese film critic and historian. If unfamiliar with him, combine Roger Ebert with four or five other historically important US critics to your taste (Kael, Sarris, take your pick), and you have something resembling his status in Japan. Subjects he discusses are also brought up in the commentary, but there’s no redundancy here.
Rounding things out is The Unluckiest Dragon, whose title sounds like a Disney Classic Animated Short. It is, in fact, a 10-minute visual essay about the real-life fishing boat tragedy that inspired the movie (as I mentioned above).
This is the first must-own Blu-ray of 2012, and it may just finish next year as one of the best catalog film restorations as well as overall special editions, when all is said and done. No offense to the previous Classic Media releases (on DVD and Blu-ray), but this edition eclipses everything that has come before quite handily.
The Amazon pre-order is currently at $27.99, which is entirely reasonable for the hours and hours of stuff packed in here. You’re not a real GODZILLA geek if you don’t get this thing right when it comes out. Click on the Bill Sienkiewicz cover art below to pre-order at Amazon.
Harry, if you’re reading, I only wish that a bunch of geeks got a chance to see this restored masterpiece on big screens in a room packed with their own ilk. This movie with a crowd…forget about it. Just think of when the “Occupy” Odo Island crowd protests government inaction in the Diet building.
Once again, dear readers, I hope this reaches you well.
Yours in bloody, delicious vengeance,