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Blu-ray Review: Criterion's GODZILLA Offers Sobering, Abstract Portrait of Annihilation

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When you think Godzilla, you think “men in rubber lizard suits”; you think battles against Mothra and King Kong; you think—if you’ve only seen the Americanized re-edit of director Ishirô Honda’s film—Raymond Burr as intrepid reporter Steve Martin.  What you don’t think about are Brechtian distancing effects, yet that’s exactly what hit me the hardest after watching Criterion’s lovingly restored Blu-ray of the 1954 original.

For anyone only familiar with the (other) Green Monster from the myriad sequels (or, God help you, with the 1998 Roland Emmerich crapfest), this first Godzilla should carry a subtle jolt.  Gone is the camp; welcome to a sober-minded and grim parable of nuclear devastation.  Certain critics took issue with the film’s now-largely-free-of-Godzilla opening half hour—David Edelstein found this sequence “impossibly bad: choppy, poky, stiffly staged and acted, with the few special effects looking like obvious miniatures”—but to me, this human interest justifies the second half’s mayhem.

The soap opera-esque love triangle, the OTT performance from Kurosawa muse Takashi Shimura as a tortured paleontologist, the oddly muted reaction scenes to Godzilla’s harbingers: they should be stilted and unconvincing because they represent a world that no longer works.  Even prior to Godzilla’s rampage, the film’s Japanese characters are already suffering from PTSD; the nuclear bombing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealed a world where life could disintegrate in a flash, a world where the living could mutate and rot.  Japan was a waking nightmare in 1954, and that horrible unease permeates Godzilla’s human subplots.  Try as they might, our heroes can’t fake it through their lives anymore–dead or alive, the bomb has consumed their souls.

The performances are the first of Godzilla’s distancing effects.  We can’t lose ourselves in the various human intrigues and affairs; all we see are haunted visages and empty play-acting—the cost of nuclear devastation.  Whether this effect is intentional or not, Honda keeps us focused on the social/cultural subtext.

Then Godzilla arrives, and we receive our second—and the most powerful—distancing agent.  In an era where the monster movie strives for a technical perfection, the 1954 Godzilla shocks in its artlessness.  Think of the “you are there” thrills of 2008’s Cloverfield; the monster has an anatomically correct physiology, and the “found footage” conceit literally places the viewer in the center of the carnage.  Now, compare that with Godzilla: the attack scenes rarely show Godzilla and the human characters in the same frame with one another, and the Godzilla suit never looks like anything other than a man in a bulky, inarticulate monster suit—Roger Ebert (correctly) remarked that “this was not state of the art even at the time; “King Kong” (1933) was much more convincing.”  On a visceral level, Godzilla never lets us ignore the artifice.

On an aesthetic level, however, the film gains greater horror.  Separated from traditional thrills, Godzilla becomes a series of abstracted destruction setpieces—Godzilla stomps through Tokyo, Godzilla causes explosions, Godzilla framed by fire.  The metaphor is the message: finally, the fear of nuclear danger so embodied by the movie’s human players becomes (a real boy?) corporeal, and nothing else matters.  First Japan, then the world: no wonder nuclear tensions ran so high during the Cold War—even our monster movies wouldn’t cut us any slack.

Oddly enough, there’s a third distancing effect at work (let’s call it 2.5).  For the American version—also included on the Blu-ray—the disconnect between form and content is more pronounced.  If Godzilla didn’t quite fit before, now it’s Raymond Burr; his scenes never mesh with the original narrative, and he’s always standing at a distance, commenting on the beast.  We never buy it, and still it retains a kick.  Maybe the American version functions as a postmodern commentary on movie violence, with Burr’s literal commentator highlighting the “good stuff,” or maybe the Japanese version’s eerie, postapocalyptic madness still comes through on a charred, pulsing wavelength all its own.

This is one of Criterion’s most impressive Blu-rays. Classic Media put out an HD version a few years ago, and Criterion has rendered it obsolete.  A/V quality is superior on all fronts: detail is good and strong, with minimal print defects, pleasing film grain, and a full-bodied LPCM mono audio track.  Furthermore, Criterion didn’t just restore Honda’s version; the Terry Morse American cut looks almost as good.

And the features!  Check it: you get two versions of the film—with film historian David Kalat providing commentary on both—interviews with a) performers Akira Takarada & Haruo Nakajima, b) effects specialists Yoshio Irie & Eizo Kaimai, c) composer Akira Ifukube, and d) Japanese-film critic Tadao Sato; the Unluckiest Dragon visual essay on the real-life fishing incident that inspired the film; and a featurette on Godzilla’s many effects shots.  There are also trailers for the separate American and Japanese cuts, and a booklet with an essay from (ex-) Village Voice critic J. Hoberman.  I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s gorgeous box art.

For a film with the reputation of a Roger Corman cheapo, Godzilla carries a potent charge—its Brechtian visual devices keep the focus on an all-too human horror.  Criterion has honored the film with a definitive Blu-ray edition; this one is for the time capsule.

Godzilla streets on January 24th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.