In May 2006, Classic Media released a fine two disc double feature of Ishiro Honda’s Japanese version of GOJIRA and its American reworking, GODZILA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. This marked the first time the original Honda version was released to region one DVD and the collector’s edition featured some really excellent extras such as a documentary on the making of the film as well as informative and entertaining audio commentaries by noted Toho monster movie experts Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. At the time, it seemed that this was the definitive release as it seemed unlikely that film elements would ever be found that would make the 50 plus year-old films look better than they were. In fact, in 2009, Classic Media released an extremely substandard Blu-Ray disc of the Honda version only which featured no video or audio cleanup of any kind.
Two years later, a rather surprising announcement was made from the good people at Criterion (and which quickly spread to various monster fan websites) that they had obtained original film elements for not only the Japanese version, but original elements for the 1956 American version. Up until 2011, the only DVD releases of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS were made from 35mm prints but not from original elements. Thus these presentations look passable, but not outstanding. Well now…through the improved DVD/Blu-Ray technology since 2006, Criterion has joined forces with Toho and Classic Media (C.M.’s name appears prominently on the back cover) to produce a much improved visual and audio presentation of one of the most historically important science fiction films of its era.
The background of the creation, production, and aftermath of GOJIRA and GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS was thoroughly covered in this reviewer’s 2006 review pertaining to the Classic Media release so that will not be revisited here, however, genre fans will definitely want to give this Criterion redo a look.
Firstly, the video image (and this review is based on the standard two-disc DVD edition) is much improved on the Japanese version of Criterion’s release. The new high definition restoration is very sharp revealing much detail in the surroundings that were otherwise lost. This is especially true in the scene where the girls sing the “prayer of peace” in the school auditorium. The clarity is excellent and rows and rows of the singers can be clearly seen where in previous editions, they were blurred. In addition, the daytime scenes on Odo Island (where Godzilla is first revealed to movie audiences) and the scenes at the end on the boat are also exceptionally sharp. Also, one of the biggest complaints about other DVD and video presentations of this film was about how dark the scenes of Godzilla’s Tokyo raids were. Well that has been digitally cleaned up here and now audiences can clearly enjoy the monster’s rampage while getting a new appreciation of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects genius.
As extensively covered in the 2006 review, the film stock used by Toho from the 1950s through the early 1960s was significantly inferior to their later stock. Thus particles like dust, dirt and fingerprints were all too commonplace which left permanent scratches and marks on films of this era. Criterion has gone through a painstaking restoration on this presentation to repair as much as was humanly possible and their hard work shows as the video is significantly better than Classic Media’s version (which was good, but this is better). Genre fans must always remember that since this was originally shot on inferior film stock, there are always going be scratches no matter how good a digital restoration so it will NEVER look 100% pristine. As David Kalat points out on his great audio commentary…”you are seeing GOJIRA exactly the way audiences in Japan saw it in 1954.”
As far as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS is concerned, it too was cleaned up as much as was possible and in a significant improvement over the 2006 Classic Media disc, has the proper TRANSWORLD logo restored as well as the closing credits which for so long were not part of any VHS or DVD release until the Classic Media disc. However, even on Classic Media’s disc, the ending credits were inserted from a battered 16mm print and were placed at the wrong section of the ending. The Criterion version fixes this with nice, clear credits placed exactly where they belong so as not to break up the continuity of composer Akira Ifukubie’s haunting end music.
The sound elements were also cleaned up and the Blu-ray disc features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. In addition, the subtitles are also a significant improvement over the Classic Media’s subtitles that are yellow and a bit hard to read in spots. Criterion’s subtitles are a sharp, bold, and easy to read white. Other extras are the aforementioned audio commentary from film historian David Kalat which emphasizes the characterization of the film’s leading players as well as the symbolism and ironies found in the story. The audio commentaries on the Classic Media discs emphasize more the technical aspects and making of the films. Criterion’s presentation also features a recent (2011) interview with Akira Takarada as well as interviews with Godzilla himself, stuntman Haruo Nakajima and special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai. There is also an older interview with composer Akira Ifukubie as well as a featurette detailing the photographic effects introduced by special effects director Koichi Kawakita and Motoyoshi Tomoika. In addition, there is the documentary "The Unluckiest Dragon", which is an illustrated audio essay by historian Greg Plugfelder which sheds light on the real-life drama in which a hapless fishing vessel had the misfortune to wander into a radioactive area of the Pacific in 1954. Trailers for both the Japanese version and the American version are also present (Classic Media did not have a trailer for the American version on its 2006 DVD).
Die hard Japanese monster movie fans will want to keep the Classic Media discs for their plethora of superb extras as well as the great Godziszewski/Ryfle audio commentaries. However, the Criterion Collection’s redo is a special treat in itself and probably the best both GOJIRA and GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS have looked and will ever look with our present technology. (Joe Cascio)
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