In early 1954, a Japanese fishing boat with the ironic name Lucky Dragon #5 cruised into waters in dangerous proximity to an American nuclear test site; when an H-bomb test irradiated the area, the doomed crew was poisoned by nuclear fallout. This incident, coming nine years after the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made the country understandably apprehensive, and when a film about a rampaging radioactive monster hit screens later in the year, the film was more than a mere hit — Godzilla was a cultural phenomenon. Yet for all the film’s commercial success in Japan and elsewhere, as a work of art it has rarely received its proper due. Compared to the more “serious” masterpieces directed by Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu during the same era, this film, starring a man in a giant lizard suit, understandably, has been looked down upon as somewhat silly.
That is, to say the least, a superficial reading of what is in fact a complex, poignant film that is as resonant today (especially in the wake of the disastrous 2011 accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant) as it was in 1954. As Godzilla’s title character stomps through the city and breathes fire on its inhabitants, the echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are undeniable and, surprisingly, unsettling at times. Director Ishiro Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata take their time to develop and humanize Godzilla’s victims (not to mention the monster himself), and the toll of the onscreen destruction is more deeply felt than in most of the later disaster movies Godzilla’s success inspired. For all the picture’s scale, the audience is never allowed to forget the crushed buildings and incinerated vehicles contain individual human beings whose lives come to a tragic end — a tragic end precipitated by nuclear technology.
Honda handles the intimate, interpersonal conflicts of the film as well as he choreographs the enormous large-scale action sequences. (Godzilla was the most expensive Japanese movie in history at the time of its release.) These two elements are expertly balanced with a third, a consideration of ethical questions related to nuclear proliferation; the dilemmas facing the scientists in the film reflect, on an allegorical level, the moral quandaries of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Addressing such weighty issues in a monster movie might seem contrary, but the seriousness of intent makes the spectacle all the more powerful — and the genre conventions serve as an efficient mass-appeal delivery system for the same profound points made in Kurosawa’s art house film I Live in Fear, released just after Godzilla.
The somber tone permeating Godzilla in its quieter moments (of which there are many) was nothing new for the picture’s director of photography. Cinematographer Masao Tamai was a frequent collaborator of director Mikio Naruse (Late Chrysanthemums, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), with whom he crafted a series of exquisite realist dramas. Tamai, one of the co-founders of what would come to be known as the Japanese Society of Cinematographers, clearly saw Godzilla for the ambitious, thoughtful project it was; his deep-focus, formal compositions in the dialogue sequences give the characters and their spatial relationships the same kind of weight the actors would have had in one of Naruse’s severe dissections of social oppression. When the monster attacks and the film shifts tones, Tamai’s images grow more extreme, with increased contrast emphasizing the drama of a city under attack; his photography is also perfectly integrated with elaborate matte and miniature work, much of which is still convincing today.
Criterion’s Blu-ray of Godzilla contains a solid transfer that reproduces Tamai’s tonal range with all of its subtle details intact. The image is more ravaged by scratches and other minor imperfections than one is used to seeing on a Criterion release, but this is, in fact, representative of the way the film has always existed; the abundance of multiple exposures and trick photographic effects used on the film led to an unusually frequent handling of the negative during shooting; thus, the picture has always been beset by numerous flaws. The sound, on the other hand, is beyond criticism: the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is astonishingly robust in its music and effects, which fuel the movie’s increasing sense of terror as Godzilla stomps through.
The disc contains a multitude of supplements, starting with Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American-release version in which the Japanese material was extensively restructured, dubbed into English and then integrated with new footage starring Raymond Burr and photographed by Guy Roe, ASC. Both editions include audio-narration tracks by film historian David Kalat, who provides an outstanding combination of production history, visual analysis and cultural commentary. Kalat’s insights are complemented by a broad array of interviews: a 13-minute conversation with lead actor Akira Takarada; a 10-minute piece with Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla; an in-depth, 50-minute interview with composer Akira Ifukube and a half-hour featurette with special-effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai. A nine-minute documentary on compositing and miniatures supplies further information on the movie’s innovative visual effects, and sociological analysis can be found in a terrific, 14-minute interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato. An illustrated audio essay on the real-life incident involving the Lucky Dragon #5 completes yet another first-class release from the Criterion Collection.