Release Date(s)1954 (October 25, 2023)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor's Note: This is a Region-Free Japanese import.]
Every so often, a film comes along that proves so influential that it can be said to have launched a new movement, style, or an entire genre. Yet even those kinds of landmarks tend to draw heavily from what came before them. There’s nothing really new under the sun, just new ways of doing the same old thing. Still, seismic shifts do sometimes occur. In the early 1950s, a film did end up launching an entire genre, one that’s definitely changed with the times, but it’s still going strong more than seven decades later.
I’m talking about The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Not really, of course. Yet in the great cycle of influences, it can be nearly impossible to locate ground zero. Godzilla (aka Gojira) did draw its primary inspiration from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but the Ray Harryhausen classic was heavily influenced by the work already done by Harryhausen’s mentor Willis O’Brien in King Kong two decades earlier. If anything can be said to have birthed a new genre, it’s King Kong, yet even that borrowed from O’Brien’s efforts on The Lost World in 1925—a film that was itself an adaptation of the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ground zero can be quite elusive sometimes.
Still, the original 1954 Godzilla (aka Gojira) does serve as a something of a ground zero on both a literal and a metaphorical level. When Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka first conceived of a giant monster movie in the vein of the previous year’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, legendary visual effects master Eiji Tsuburaya wanted to bring the creature to life using the same stop-motion animation techniques that Harryhausen had used. The trouble was that Tsuburaya’s effects team had neither the time, the money, nor the experience to pull off a stop-motion animated creature like Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus. So, they put the redoubtable Haruo Nakajima (along with Katsumi Tezuka) into an insanely heavy and wildly uncomfortable rubber suit instead, and the rest became history. (Although to be fair, there are two brief stop-motion shots in the final film, one with Godzilla’s tail and the other featuring a firetruck rolling over.) Godzilla wasn’t the first film to turn to what would eventually be known as suitmation in order to bring a giant monster to life, but it’s still the one that launched an entire genre. It certainly birthed all of the Kaiju films that followed in Japan, and it was profoundly influential across the globe as well.
Of course, there’s another ground zero at play in Godzilla, and one that’s far more literal. The monster movies of the Fifties and Sixties usually offered some kind of a McGuffin in order to explain the existence of their various beasties, and during the Cold War era, nuclear radiation offered an easy target. Gordon Douglas had already gotten there first with Them! earlier in 1954, but the nuclear causation in Godzilla was anything but a simple McGuffin. On March 1, 1954, a Japanese fishing boat called the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) accidentally encountered fallout from the Castle Bravo nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll. The boat was outside the zone that the U.S. government had declared to be unsafe, but the test ended up being far more powerful than had anticipated, and the fallout spread. As a result, the crew members all suffered from acute radiation sickness, and by late September, one of them (Aikichi Kuboyama) had died due to complications from the radiation. For a nation that was still smarting from the nuclear bombs that the U.S. had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru tragedy was like rubbing salt in an open wound.
Tomoyuki Tanaka ended up drawing as much inspiration from the Daigo Fukuryū Maru as he did from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, even opening Godzilla with a similar incident where a freighter named the Eiko-maru has an unfortunate encounter with the irradiated monster. The scene resonated strongly with Japanese audiences of the day, but the full story as conceived by Tanaka, writer/director Ishirō Honda, and co-writers Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama went much farther than that. Godzilla wasn’t just a monster spawned by man’s dalliance with splitting the atom; instead, it became the living embodiment of nuclear weaponry. While Godzilla may be an inadvertent result of American nuclear testing, it comes to represent that which caused its accidental birth in the first place. Cause and effect become blurred in Godzilla; as Ogata (Akira Takarada) explains, “Godzilla is no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head.” The nuclear metaphors aren’t particularly subtle here.
Yet while Godzilla may serve as an obvious proxy for the atomic bomb, Godzilla’s real targets are much broader and more universal than that. The question of whether or not the ends can ever justify the means of using weapons of mass destruction was very much an open one in 1954, and Godzilla addresses that by abstracting it away from nuclear weaponry itself. Instead, Godzilla offers its own J. Robert Oppenheimer figure in the form Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has designed a different potential weapon of mass destruction: the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa is a tortured soul, scarred (literally and figuratively) by his experiences during World War II, and he fully understands the implications of what he’s accidentally created. Unlike the real Oppenheimer, he wants to keep his discovery hidden from the world to prevent it from being used as a weapon, so he swears his fiancée Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) to secrecy about it.
Yet when Godzilla rampages through Tokyo causing mass death and destruction of its own, Emiko is torn between wanting to find a way to stop the devastation while still keeping her oath to Serizawa. Not coincidentally, she’s also torn between her betrothal to the troubled scientist and the fact that she’s really secretly in love with Ogata. The two conflicts inevitably resolve when she breaks both of her vows by revealing the existence of the Oxygen Destroyer to Ogata, who goes to Serizawa to beg him to allow it to be used against Godzilla. Like the American justification for dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ogata views using the Oxygen Destroyer as a necessary evil in order to stop Godzilla. Serizawa, on the other hand, recognizes that that’s just using one weapon of mass destruction in order to stop another, and the cycle won’t end once Godzilla is gone. Freed from the yoke of his arranged marriage to Emiko, he chooses to take his secrets the grave to prevent politicians from using the Oxygen Destroyer as a weapon against anyone else. Unlike Oppenheimer, he accepts the consequences not just for what he’s done, but for what might have been done with it by others as well.
The triangle between Emiko, Ogata, and Serizawa wasn’t present in Shigeru Kayama’s original story treatment for Godzilla. It was a later addition by Honda and Murata during the scripting phase, and instead of being merely a tacked-on romantic angle, they worked it into the fabric of the narrative. Honda also shrewdly borrowed Takashi Shimura from his friend Akira Kurosawa in order to play Emiko’s father Dr. Yamane, and Shimura ended up adding necessary gravitas to the proceedings. However heady that the themes of Godzilla may be, it still could have been dismissed as simple giant monster hokum, but that’s just not possible whenever Honda’s camera is trained on Shimura. He’s really the fourth member of the triangle that ties the whole story together. Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One has been uniformly praised for having compelling characters, but it was hardly the first film in the franchise to do so. As with many other things in life, Ishirō Honda got there first. Godzilla truly is ground zero on multiple levels. If King Kong is still arguably the real father of the giant monster genre, Godzilla is at least its honored godfather.
Cinematographer Masao Tamai shot Godzilla on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the full Academy aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. As with far too many Japanese films of the era, the original nitrate negative for Godzilla is long lost at this point. The best remaining elements consist of two dupe negatives and a fine-grain positive print, all of which were scanned at 4K resolution on an ARRISCAN scanner pin-registered in Soft Archive Mode, which compensated for any shrinkage or warping. At the time, Toho completed digital restoration work in 2K, and that’s how it was screened theatrically via DCP. The 4K scans were archived, however, and they were eventually used to create this improved 4K restoration.
Criterion created their own 2K restoration of Godzilla back in 2011 using what appears to have been a different scan of the fine-grain positive, which they erroneously described as a master positive that was struck off the original camera negative. Toho later discovered that it was actually struck in 1983 from one of the dupe negatives instead, so it was a generation further removed. The dupe negatives were created back in 1973 and 1975, so they’re the oldest remaining film elements, and they’re only two generations down from the camera negative. The best parts from each were used on a shot-by-shot basis to create this 4K version, with the dupe negatives being prioritized wherever possible.
No High Dynamic Range grade has been applied to any of Toho’s 4K restorations for the Godzilla franchise, but they do take advantage of 10-bit color in the BT.2020 color space. Depending on how your display is set up and calibrated, SDR BT.2020 may require some adjustments in order to work properly. Some displays will default to BT.2020 for HDR but automatically switch to Rec.709 for SDR material, and that can cause the colors to look pale and washed out. Manually switching to BT.2020 instead should restore the colors to their intended glory. (You’ll need to remember to switch back later or else colors will distort on other discs.) Obviously, that’s not an issue with a black-and-white film like the original Godzilla, and testing back and forth between the two showed no discernible differences in the grayscale. It’s still worth remembering for any color material mastered in SDR at BT.2020.
The results of all this scanning and restoration work are genuinely impressive. Given the generational losses involved, there really isn’t true 4K worth of fine detail visible, and yet everything is as crisp and detailed as possible. The grain is moderate and can vary a bit from shot to shot depending on the elements used, but it’s still smooth and managed well by a robust encode. Damage has been significantly reduced compared to the Criterion version; there’s still plenty left over, but it’s far less distracting now. Toho definitely applied automated tools in order to remove some of the damage, but it’s barely noticeable here given the fact that the original elements only offered so much detail to begin with. Yet despite the lack of an HDR grade, some of the biggest improvement with the new master are in terms of contrast range. The image is much less washed out, with deeper blacks and far less black crush. There may not be 4K levels of detail in the textures, but there’s now more detail visible in the darkest portions of the frame. Is it a perfect restoration? No, but it’s by far the best that Godzilla has ever looked on home video, and likely the best that it ever will.
Audio is offered in Japanese 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional Japanese barrier-free subtitles (that’s the Japanese equivalent of SDH). The overall sound quality tends to be a bit muffled, and there’s also some distortion on the peaks, but that’s just the nature of the original elements—other releases of Godzilla have been no different. It’s quite clean, however, with background noise, pops, and crackles kept to a minimum. While the fidelity is understandably quite limited, Akira Ifukube’s classic score still serves to do the heavy lifting for the film, both in terms of the music and the sound effects as well.
Toho’s Region-Free 4K Ultra HD release of Godzilla comes in a black amaray case with striking metallic silver artwork on the insert. The style works a bit better with the color artwork on their other 4K Godzilla titles, but it’s still distinctive enough even in black-and-white. Per standard Toho policy, neither the film nor any of the extras offer English subtitles. That’s not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, however. Some players like the Oppo UDP-203 and UDP-205 do offer the ability to load external subtitles as long as the disc has at least one other subtitle track. You’ll have to do a little Googling to see if your particular player does so as well. If it can, all that you need to do is take the English subtitle file (with an .srt extension) from disc like Criterion’s Blu-ray. Rename it “sub.srt,” create a folder on a USB drive called “sub,” and place the file in that folder. Insert the drive into the USB port on your player, then when playing the disc, use the subtitle button on your remote to select “other,” and Bob’s your uncle. You’ll have to adjust the sync to get it to line up properly—I had to add 20 seconds to make it work in this case. On the Oppos, that’s accessible using the Option button.
There are other sources for .srt files, but you’ll have to discover those on your own. There’s a more drastic (and permanent) way of adding subtitles to a film that doesn’t offer them, but that’s also something that you’ll have to find out for yourself. Google will be your friend here.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Akira Takarada
- Japanese Trailer (4K – 2:53)
- International Trailer (4K – 2:53)
- Trailer (4K – 2:53)
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters Trailer (4K – 1:46)
- Tohoscope Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Trailer (4K – 1:50)
- Tohoscope Version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (HD – 73:17)
- My Movie Life: Director Ishirō Honda (Upscaled SD – 57:34)
- Interview with Akira Ifukube (Upscaled SD – 50:38)
- Oxygen Destroyer (HD – 4:17)
- Godzilla Theme (HD – 7:22)
- 8 mm Reduction of Godzilla (HD – 14:55)
- Godzilla Composites (Upscaled SD – 16:53)
- Still Galleries:
- Cast (4K, 23 in all)
- Special Effects (4K, 37 in all)
- Promotional Materials (4K, 122 in all)
- Press Books (4K, 36 in all)
- Advertisements (4K, 36 in all)
- International Promotional Materials (4K, 25 in all)
Since the majority of these extras are in Japanese with no way to add subtitles, they’re of limited utility to anyone who doesn’t speak the language. All’s not lost, however. Google Lens with Google Translate can also be your friend in deciphering some of the text, and a few of the extras are English-friendly. There’s a rare copy of the Tohoscope version of Terry Morse’s Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! It’s essentially the Japanese version of the American version of the Japanese version. Unfortunately, the quality is very poor—Toho even has a title card at the beginning apologizing for its deficiencies. It’s still an important document that you won’t find on any North American releases. The 8 mm reduction of Godzilla is also interesting even without English subtitles. It’s an example of the way that films were cut down for home distribution on 8 mm film during the Sixties and Seventies. (Once again, Toho includes a card apologizing for the poor video quality.)
Other extras are easy enough to understand. There’s footage of the Godzilla march being performed during the 2nd Akira Ifukube Music Festival in 2008 at the Suginami Public Hall in Tokyo. The orchestration is nearly identical to what Ifukube used in 1954, so it’s a nice way to experience the opening of Godzilla with much better sound quality. There’s also footage of one of the remaining Oxygen Destroyer props, as well as a breakdown reel of the optical composites in Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and Mothra vs. Godzilla. Plus, the various Stills Galleries include plenty of interesting photographs and artwork, all of them in 4K quality.
It doesn’t seem fair to rate these extras since I couldn’t understand many of them, but based on the total quantity involved, they would probably rate at least an A- or higher, although the dismal quality of the prints for the Tohoscope and 8 mm versions might affect that. In any event, it’s still a solid collection of extras, and the 4K presentation of Godzilla easily trumps any English-language release so far, Criterion’s included. It’s highly recommended for anyone who is willing to put in the legwork to deal with the lack of English subtitles. Criterion’s release is still valuable for their restoration of the 1956 American version Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, and they offer their own slate of extras. Yet when watching Honda’s original film, Toho’s 4K master is the new king.
Will there eventually be a domestic release? Maybe, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Toho has a long history of only offering substandard masters for overseas distribution—witness the poor-quality masters that they provided to Criterion for the Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954–1975 Blu-ray set. Time will tell, but if you want to see the original Godzilla at it’s very best, Toho’s 4K release is the only option at this point. Exchange rates are currently favorable, too. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be cheap, because physical media in Japan has always been expensive relative to North America. Whether or not it’s worth the cost is up to you. Let’s just say that I’m happy!
- Stephen Bjork