Criterion Discovery: Godzilla (1954)
Godzilla (Spine #594) is the 1954 Ishiro Honda film that started the “Kaiju” sub-genre. Theatrically released in 1954, and subsequently re-released to American audiences with an English language audio-track and new footage in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, Honda’s Godzilla saw its initial Criterion release on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 24, 2012. Godzilla is currently the only Ishiro Honda film to receive inclusion in The Criterion Collection. Both the Japanese and American versions of the film are included in this release.
Godzilla is the original monster movie. Set in Japan as a parable on the horrors of the Second World War, Ishiro Honda’s beautiful film is a quaint, quiet character study that depicts the ravages of nuclear war and the H-bomb amid the destruction of Japan’s lush and multi-faceted geographical locations. As the first official film of the now ubiquitous Kaiju sub-genre, Honda’s original creature feature is a blockbuster spectacle that demands to be seen by anyone who has only ever seen the subsequent 30 plus titles of the franchise and its many Kaiju children.
When the titular creature finally emerges from the depths of the film’s featured nuclear testing sites, the grand scale and unilateral destruction that it unleashes upon an unsuspecting populace is seen as a stand in for Hiroshima and the residual effects of the Manhattan Project. While Godzilla is by no means an unwitting participant in the film’s destruction of Honda’s native country, his part is largely predetermined by the volatility of man, and the hubris of those modern day nuclear researchers who in reach for the sun burned themselves in the heat of their own ambition only to fall backwards into the sea, where the monster is given birth from metaphorical ego, avarice, and pride. In gorgeous black and white, and with some impeccable sound design, Godzilla still roars with life 60 years later.
Sporting an understated but impeccably impressionistic and vibrant comic-book-esque cover design, replete with a pop-up-book inserted interior jacket, The Criterion Collection release of Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla is a delight to behold. It features an essay from film critic J. Hoberman, “Poetry After the A-bomb,” printed in a resplendent black and white booklet that mirrors the art style of the feature film’s opening credits, evoking the majestic roar of the titular beast through visual cues stored up in one’s audio-visual memory-bank. Additionally, genre director Guillermo del Toro offers his own personal insights into the cultural and historical importance of the film, and multiple newly recorded interviews, with both the cast and crew and Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, in addition to audio commentary tracks for both the original 1954 Japanese language release and the 1956 “Americanized” version, starring Raymond Burr, from film historian David Kalat.
Ishiro Honda’s original version of Godzilla from 1954 stands the test of time, a creature feature engaged with far more than its stated sub-genre premise that continues to thrill and edify audiences to this day as a lasting and telling parable on nuclear warfare and the follies of man and war (and the “Americanized” dubbed version isn’t half bad, either).
Criterion Grade: A+
Film Grade: A+