Review: Criterion's release of GODZILLA (1954)

Hello people who still visit this blog. I am reminded of a lot of sites I used to frequent and I remember people talk about priorities and such. Because of life (among other things), yes, blog postings are more and more scarce. But, there are some things which I shall bring to the blog. Hear of a film called WILD ZERO? Yep. An in-depth review of Ryuhei Kitamura's VERSUS? Yep, that too. But right now, thanks to us humans valuing birthdays, I was blessed from my brother the blu-ray of Criterion's Godzilla and from another friend Criterion's blu-ray of SEVEN SAMURAI. SEVEN SAMURAI isn't a big thing, but Criterion's Godzilla is something that I find is lacking in some reviews so I want to throw my two cents into the ring.

Here we go.


As the title suggests, this is a sequel to an article from G-FAN issue 53. At one time, you could only see the original Godzilla film if blessed with a theatrical re-run or a rare television airing. With VHS, the want was waned  But with DVD came a new want: wanting to see the film at its most pristine. Though thoughts of the Japanese cut conjure, a fully preserved cut of KING OF THE MONSTERS also come to mind. The Simitar DVD (whose licensed status remains challenged) was for a long time the only release that had (in a faux widescreen presentation) the (un)original Transworld logo preceding the film. Eight years latter, Classic Media released the film sans logo, but with (out of order) end credits since unseen except for those who were friends with the owner of the 16mm print with it. As for the original cut, with the exception of the bootleg market (which got serious in the 90's), seeing the original film was almost a life defining moment. No longer. Thanks to Classic Media and particularly Criterion, the prophetic hope that we'd see these two films complete has not only occurred  but we Americans are blessed with the best presentation of the two cuts of the film in the world (even better due to Toho's renown conditions of American releases which keeps quality below their own releases for marketing reasons).

The most crucial bit of the release for me was the new subtitle transcript. A certain bootleg release from the 80's has been claimed to have the best one. Since then, we have had BFI, Classic Media, and now Critrion. Criterion's subtitles truly does a justice revealing information otherwise unsaid with Classic Media's transcript. Only two errors came by me - Emiko simply saying "hai" or yes to her father when turning off the light (subtitle read "Yes Father", pretty sure she would have said "hai hadasima" if it was the case) and "shishkio" being translated as "damned beast" instead of simply "damn it" (which, only a minute latter when we hear it from an unseen speaker, it is translated properly). I there a subtext being considered I am not aware of?

The picture quality of Criterion's release of the Japanese cut is nothing short of immaculate. As Kalat said, this is how audiences in Japan probably saw it. Detail and cleanness is great. No adjusting of picture levels here. Sure, if you look at a site like dvdbeaver.com, you'll find instances of edge enhancement, but it seems all the big releases have such. Next case. Funny enough, claims of a lavender print of KING OF THE MONSTERS swept the fandom in hope. In viewing the film, material before Steve Martin comes to the air port looks pretty bad. The liner note book accompanying the set says that thousands of instances of print damage had been removed, but one has to wonder. Was the lavender print only good from this one scene and on? The American scenes/shots of course look best, but it varies.

When comparing the CM DVD to the Criterion Blu-Ray, I learned something important about the image of DVDs, why the CM DVD is so much brighter than the Criterion blu-ray. On the Criterion copy, the film looks like it is being run through a projector, you can tell that the film is made of frames going by a remarkable 24 fps. The lighting looks like it is inconsistent, but it isn't. CM tried to correct this by leveling out the brightness to make a more stable image, but in result the picture looks a little faded, if not fuzzy. Bad enough Classic Media cuts short the fades to black and omit’s the thanks to the marines at the beginning.

The most important thing to consider though is the new subtitle translation. Because it is Criterion, it can be taken for granted that subtitles are going to be better translated than Classic Media’s effort. The matter of fact is that Criterion’s subtitles are better, but playing the two versions on two identical DVDs at the same time is an odd experience. Criterion gets a point for translating more of the opening credits. From there, it is a little odd. One thing that Criterion has a 95% advantage over Classic Media’s translation with is the use of phrases. When the families are pleading with the authorities to release details about their loved ones, they seem a little to passive in Classic Media’s transcript. Criterion has a more forceful approach. Through out the film, Criterion’s transcript has characters saying more correct phrases. The one time I noticed Classic Media might have the advantage here is on the train ride where the glasses wearing salary man says “it stinks” in the Classic Media version vs. Criterion’s “ I've had enough”.

Sadly, both versions also miss out some bits of dialogue. Criterion leaves out only the little bits though. Classic Media leaves out whole causes to some reactions, such as the crowd in the beginning when it is revealed some more information is revealed, causing the families to go rushing into another room.

Criterion does also have better details than Classic Media. The building that Yamane was asked if there was a way to kill Godzilla is called the Disaster Relief Headquarters by Criterion, but oddly enough the Anti-Godzilla Headquarters by Classic Media.

The only other thing to say about the Criterion release’s subtitles technically is the translation of common phrases. There seems to be some inferential bits which might be cultural. When Emiko replies to her father’s wanting the lights off in his study, she simply says “hai”, and with Classic Media, it is subtitled simply as it should - “yes”. Criterion has it be “yes father”. When Shinkichi is saying shishkio (bad romanji, I know), it is simply damn it. Criterion adds a bit more to it, but when another background character says it, it is translated properly.

The final bit to say about the subtitles is that Criterion’s subtitles are oddly poetic. Particularly when it comes to Yamane’s lines when explaining his theory post-Odo Island and when he explains that there is no way to kill Godzilla considering his resurrection. Criterion has Yamane say that Godzilla was “baptized” in the fire of the H-Bomb. Poetry after the H-Bomb indeed. Its great, and not cheesy. Just makes it more captivating for this viewer.

With Classic Media still the main holder of American home video distribution rights of the film, hopes that special features from their DVD release were a no-go to keep the earlier product still sell-able (and for us, not take up disc space). This has kept some critics from calling this the definitive home video release (that would be the 40th anniversary Laser-disc Box Set). The lack of an image gallery or special features talking of other little things about the film would also be a negative, but one who know what the Criterion collection is will proclaim that the special features are there only to "enhance the appreciation of the art of film". So nothing like the publicity campaign (images have poped up of Godzilla balloons being put atop buildings) or cool tidbits like Toshiro Mifune attending GODZILLA's shinto purification ceremony before principle photography. New interviews with Akira Takarada, Haruo Nakajima, Yoshio Irie, and Eizo Kaimai. The duo interview with Irie and Kaimai is the most enlightening, containing information that was not in the Classic Media DVD set or books like Godziszewski's THE ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GODZILLA (rather, that book goes far more in-depth with deleted scenes and un-filmed script bits, which either Classic Media or Criterion's release goes into) or Kalat's A CRITICAL HISTORY AND FILMOGRAPHY OF TOHO'S GODZILLA SERIES. Nakajima and Takarada says little we didn't already know (from many sources, including special features on the Classic Media releases, BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, or SciFiJapan's youtube show). What truly is great is the ported over Akira Ifukube Interview from the Japanese DVD/Blu-Ray (Ifukube even mentions that the interview is for the first DVD release of the film). Ifukube's little history with Eiji Tsuburaya before production began is truly great.

Of course, we have a feature on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. People who bought Criterion's release has probably relinquished any desire I have had to buy BFI's R2 UK release. The information in the short is great. Just too bad that it is almost overkill, with the documentary, Kalat's commentary, and the insert booklet. This leads to another flaw (subjective) with Criterion's release - its very apologetic. If there is a chance to tie the film to Kurosawa, it will be mentioned. Over and over again. Kalat even asks for our indulgence. Criterion was destined to release Godzilla (listen to the KOTM commentary for the connection), and with all of this, one has to wonder what happened to the Criterion that in the 90's wanted to release all the Godzilla films Simitar ended up releasing.

But I digress: David Kalat is a great commentator. I always was favorable of Kalat. When it came time to get myself a Godzilla book, I chose his. Its a great book, and I don't regret getting it over JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR. The book has highlights and my own notes all through it. Very worn. Him doing the commentaries here is something I am fine with, even if people say he errors in his commentary for GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER.

The beginnings of the commentaries sets up a nice context for the film, but alas, show boating his book (that I already own) is a little much. But there is a lot of information here. Reading that Terry Morse Sr. kept a print of the Japanese cut out of admiration for the film. The more practical information such as the Rashomon bit is also appreciated. While the Ryfle/Godziszewski commentary for KOTM from Classic Media's almost equally great DVD release focused on the more intimate making of anecdotes (complete with quotes from the horse's mouth via audio recordings).

In distancing himself from the Classic Media offering (and since it shares commentators, BFI's release), Kalat takes a much more analytical approach instead of keeping to production anecdotes (lest it helps explain how character archetypes were implemented). When it comes to making of anecdotes, Kalat goes into something August Ragone has been (wrongly) criticized for - going into bios, particularly with people who have not really been fleshed out in other information sources. A propaganda film maker during
 the third reich involved? Hell yes. It ultimately culminates to an interesting reading of Serizawa's suicide from a political view point (which does factor in the history of the war criminal, supposed spy Eiji Tsuburaya, and even Liberal pacifist Honda). It is great.

It seems I didn't talk about the audio. To tell the truth, I am not an expert listener. Lets assume its better because that's whats good for the world.

Criterion's release of GODZILLA is damn near perfect. Keep the Classic Media DVD (not blu-ray) and this. It is a great duo which just shows the greatness this film has been shown in America (it never got that good in Japan).

Thanks to Immy Batiham Erasmus for letting this review be possible.