In 1954, Japan was still reeling from the effects of the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, more recently, from the H-bomb testing being done in the Pacific Ocean. Director Ishiro Honda played upon the Japanese people’s fears and created a monster that represented the evils of nuclear weapons. That monster was Godzilla — or Gojira, as it was originally named. Godzilla has spawned nearly 30 sequels and become one of the most well-known characters in cinematic history. Now the original Japanese film and the 1956 American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, have been reissued as by The Criterion Collection.
The story begins with a number of ships being destroyed near Odo Island by a mysterious force in the ocean in bright flashes of light. A team is sent in to investigate the findings while an elder on the island warns that it is Godzilla that is responsible for the attacks. He goes on to say that in the old days, if the fishing catch was poor, the people would sacrifice a young girl to the monster. Among the investigators is Professor Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), who finds giant, radioactive footprints and a trilobite, which was thought to be long extinct.
Yamane concludes before the government that Godzilla was an ancient creature that was mutated by atomic testing in the ocean. The blast explains the radioactive footprints while the trilobites dated from Godzilla’s time period. Much debate ensues over whether to attempt to kill Godzilla or to study the monster as Yamani hopes. Some officials want to keep the monster’s identity a secret, fearing damage to Japan’s already fragile foreign relations and frightening the locals. This was not long after World War II, so it was a very timely subject. Others thought the truth should be known and Godzilla’s existence was eventually confirmed to the public.
At this time, Yamani’s daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), was engaged to be married in a prearranged wedding to Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) a colleague of her father’s. She had since fallen in love with a ship captain named Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) and had intended to break things off with Serizawa when she learned of a deadly weapon he had created called the oxygen destroyer. While Serizawa swears Emiko to secrecy, she tells Ogata as she feels it is the only way to defeat Godzilla. Together, they attempt to convince Serizawa to use his weapon to kill Godzilla, which he is reluctant to reveal for fear of it falling into the wrong hands.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters incorporates scenes from Honda’s original film along with newly shot footage for the American audience. It stars Raymond Burr as Steve Martin, an American reporter for the United World News. The film begins with a wounded Martin in the hospital, recapping his story about how a stopover in Tokyo turned into the news story of the century when Godzilla was discovered. It’s like watching Godzilla through the lens of a news camera, providing an American perspective on the horrible events taking place in Japan. While it does make for an interesting take, it does so at the expense of many of the scenes involving Emiko, Serizawa and Ogata, making their love triangle less believable. In addition, references to Nagasaki and contaminated food were cut (history is often written by the victors), making for a less powerful film that misses Honda’s original point.
As with all Criterion releases, the transfers of both films are top notch and the DVD includes a host of extras. Among those are commentaries on both films, trailers for both films, interviews with Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima, and a featurette about the special effects.
Godzilla is one of the great movie monsters of all time. With excellent transfers and a number of extra features, Godzilla The Criterion Collection makes a worthy addition to any fan of the genre’s movie collection.