Godzilla appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While I’m sure the folks at Criterion did their best with the material, the movie still came with a mix of concerns.
Sharpness seemed erratic. Though much of the film demonstrated good definition, more than a few examples of softness occurred. Some of these came from poor source photography, but others were less logical. In any case, overall clarity was fine, and I noticed no issues with jaggies, shimmering or edge haloes.
Print flaws created the most substantial distractions here. Throughout the movie, I saw quite a few examples of scratches; at times, these made it look like rain appeared on screen. Unsurprisingly, these dominated effects shots and were much less prominent during other scenes, though they still appeared, and the image could be somewhat jittery and flickery.
Blacks varied. Some of the movie showed deep tones and good contrast, but others displayed mushy blacks and a sense of excessive brightness. Shadows also tended to be too dark, usually due to poor “day for night” photography; those filters made some shots awfully opaque. Again, I think Criterion did their best with what I’d guess were flawed 58-year-old source elements, but this still resulted in an inconsistent, sometimes unattractive presentation.
I also felt the monaural audio of Godzilla seemed lackluster but acceptable given the movie’s age and origins. Speech varied; some lines appeared fairly natural and concise, but others could be rough and edgy. I couldn’t easily judge intelligibility since I don’t speak Japanese; I’d estimate that the work remained intelligible but lacked strengths.
Music was generally decent. The score could sound somewhat shrill at times, but it usually appeared acceptably full. The same went for effects; while these occasionally came across as distorted, they still provided acceptable clarity and even threw if a little heft from Godzilla’s footsteps. Nothing here was memorable, but the mix was decent for its period.
Expect a nice collection of extras in this two-disc set. On DVD One, we find the flick’s trailer as well as an audio commentary from film historian David Kalat. He provides a running, screen-specific look at socio-political/scientific background and influences, the film's origins and development, story/characters, themes/interpretation, cast and crew notes, various effects, music and audio, the movie's reception and legacy.
On another website, I read a review of Kalat’s commentary in which he was described as “too emotional”, a factor that the critic felt made the track difficult to take. I find myself befuddled by those sentiments. Where someone else heard “too emotional”, I heard passion and intense interest in the subject; Kalat clearly loves most things Godzilla, and that affection comes through during his enthusiastic chat.
Kalat backs up his ardor with a high level of expertise. He digs into a wide variety of useful subjects and does so with detail and insight. Kalat leaves few stones left unturned in this delightful, informative piece.
DVD One also includes three featurettes. Photographic Effects lasts nine minutes, five seconds as it offers comments from effects director Koichi Kawakita and effects photographer Motoyoshi Tomioka. We see original effects photos from the shoot and learn a few details related to them. This ends up as a mediocre piece, at least during the first half; we don’t view enough of the pictures, as “talking head” shots dominate, and the remarks are only occasionally informative. The featurette’s second half focuses on photos and is more interesting, though it’s still not great stuff.
Next comes a 14-minute, four-second Interview with Film Critic Tadao Sato. In this chat, Sato discusses the era in which the film existed, social and political elements and aspects of the movie’s release and impact. While Sato touches on some of the same topics as Kalat, he does so from a different perspective, and that makes this a useful piece.
An audio essay called The Unluckiest Dragon goes for nine minutes, 38 seconds and provides notes from Columbia University’s Greg Pflugfelder. He discusses the fate of the Japanese fishing boat “Daigo Fukuryu” and how it influenced the narrative of Godzilla. Pflugfelder delivers a concise overview of the subject in this quality program.
Over on Disc Two, the main attraction comes from 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the “Americanized” reworking of the flick. It runs one hour, 20 minutes, 49 seconds and offers some radical changes from the Japanese original. The biggest change comes from the addition of footage shot specifically for this edition. We meet Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter who lays over in Japan to meet up with an old friend before he goes to an assignment in Cairo. When the disasters at sea occur, Steve sticks around to get the scoop, and he ends up in the middle of subsequent action.
Essentially, Martin exists as a way to avoid subtitles. We get a fair amount of dubbed dialogue, but we also hear plenty of original Japanese; Steve either explains it via narration or has someone interpret for him.
This does allow the movie to avoid those dreaded subtitles, but it creates problems of its own. The dubbed dialogue sounds silly, and the scenes in which body doubles fill in for the original Japanese actors look positively goofy.
The American cut moves the action along more quickly and dispenses with a lot of the character subplots, for better and for worse. While those hurt the original version’s pacing, the American edition seems more soulless and one-dimensional.
Ultimately, though it may be cheesy, the American cut isn’t truly bad; it’s just Another Monster Movie without any of the Japanese edition’s drama and meaning. I’m glad it’s included here, though, as it’s the one millions grew up watching and will be appreciated by them.
Along with the American version’s trailer, we get another David Kalat audio commentary for King of the Monsters. In this running, screen-specific chat, Kalat discusses a lot of elements related to the Americanization of the film, as well as other aspects of its production and legacy. Here’s where he offers the defense of the visual effects that I mention in the body of my review. Once again, Kalat remains involved and active as he goes over the flick and the franchise; it’s another terrific listen.
Under Cast and Crew, we get some video interviews. These include sessions with actor Akira Takarada (12:57), Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima (9:47), effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (30:06) and composer Akira Ifukube (50:40). Takarada gets into his casting, experiences during the shoot, and his reactions to the film’s release/legacy, while Nakajima hits on similar topics, though with an emphasis on the challenges related to working in the Godzilla suit. Both men deliver interesting glimpses of the film’s particular acting challenges.
Irie and Kaimai touch on the design and creation of the Godzilla suit as well as dealing with problems and other effects work. Kaimai dominates but both men offer good details and insights about the nuts and bolts of the creature’s on-screen execution. Recorded in 2000, Ifukube delivers an in-depth discussion of his career as a whole, with many specifics about Godzilla. It’s a likable, engaging piece that finishes this fine collection of interviews.
Just like all other Criterion releases, Godzilla comes with a booklet. This 16-page affair includes an essay called “Poetry After the A-Bomb” from critic J. Hoberman as well as some credits and photos. It’s not one of Criterion’s best booklets, but it’s a worthwhile addition.
Note that Criterion did something a little different with the DVD’s packaging as well. When you open the case, you get a little pop-up Godzilla. This offers a fun touch.
Nearly six decades after its release, Godzilla remains a quality monster flick. It boasts more depth than its brethren and succeeds despite a mix of flaws. The DVD provides erratic but acceptable picture and audio as well as a terrific set of supplements. I recommend this fine set, as it brings home Godzilla well.