The title sequence may consist visually of nothing more than white credits scrolling on a black screen, but it’s the soundtrack which is key. First those immense footsteps begin to reverberate, followed closely by that famous roar, somewhere between organic and metallic and to this day still genuinely frightening. And so we kick off Japan’s most famous movie franchise, except things were quite different in the early days. Long before the spin-offs and sequels brought forth the likes of Gidrah, Mothra and Mechagodzilla, not to mention an ounce or two of pastel-coloured camp, Godzilla was really quite serious. Dealing with pertinent issues, shot in moodier black and white and offering just a single monster, this 1954 debut represents by far Godzilla’s finest horror.
Not that director Ishiro Honda and his team thought they were making anything other than a genre picture. Like the newspaper headlines which occasionally emblazon the screen, Godzilla is fully of punchy verve and sticks to the point. The earliest scenes have been honed to perfection: fast-paced, concentrating on the essentials and linked by efficient wipes. More to the point, they get straight down to business, beginning immediately with a nuclear test in the Pacific which causes not only the spontaneous combustion of an immense freighter, but also widespread radiation and a mass culling of the ocean’s fish. As the later nods to World War II, Nagasaki and the ominous “evacuate Tokyo... not again” line evince, Godzilla is drawing on Japan’s history, and recent history at that. Thus the human part of the equation is never forgotten, nor the immediate consequences. Unlike the standard monster movie, for example The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, of which Godzilla was a loose, unofficial remake, there’s concern and lip service paid to the bigger picture: the effects on commerce, on the weather, on the general population’s well-being.
Purportedly a dinosaur from the Jurassic era (or so we’re informed by Takashi Shimura’s top scientist), yet made radioactive from the atomic test, Godzilla represents an intriguing mixture of both the old world and the new. At first we hear of him as a mere legend to whom simple islanders would once upon a time sacrifice their ladyfolk. And later, when he finally makes his appearance, he sets about destroying the modern world as we know it: first a helicopter, then electrical pylons and a commuter train attract his attention. There’s a tension between what Godzilla once was and what he has become – his destructive powers being the result of both his prehistoric size and his post-atomic ability to breathe radioactive fire – and as such he makes for an interesting figure. He’s no mere giant to be destroyed in the final reel as per B movie fodder such as The Giant Gila Monster, but a genuine character and a potent metaphor. Moreover, the fact that the filmmakers have made the effort in this department only serves to ground the science-fiction elements and indeed the film as a whole. By the time the inevitable rampage is in full effect Godzilla and its generic touches have become fully accepted; we’re not taking a step back and chuckling at the rubbery FX or the variable model work, but actually caring and, dare I say it, thinking.
Of course, I’m also not denying that Godzilla is great fun, because put simply it is. The film is full of terrifically entertaining genre standards, from the eye-patch-sporting scientist to the presence of another who wishes to study the beast, not destroy it. And then there’s the SFX-heavy set-pieces in which Tokyo is reduced to a mass of rubble and back-projected conflagrations. Yet the reason why these moments work so well is simply because Honda, his cast and his crew take all of this with the utmost seriousness. In the simplest of filmmaking terms Godzilla gets so much that is absolutely right: Honda’s building of the suspense through the aforementioned roar and footsteps (prefiguring Jurassic Park’s T-Rex entrance by many a year); the late Akira Ifukube’s terrifically understated score full of brooding menace; Shimura’s typically fine performance which succeeds in fleshing out and freshening up the most common of SF stock types.
Furthermore, the special effects team headed up by Eiji Tsuburaya, despite the apparent outdated qualities of their efforts, turn in their own highly effective moments. Certainly, the model work isn’t always the greatest (the aeroplanes in particular), but the black and white photography works heavily in the favour of Godzilla himself. As long as we don’t catch sight of the doll-like eyes (perhaps even teddy bear-like), the rubber suit and even its movement really do look quite eerie and convincing. Indeed, the sheer wantonness of his destruction works all the better as a result: Tokyo, and by extension Japan, gets destroyed and we believe it. And as such we also never lose sight of the overall anti-nuclear message, nor indeed its potency, meaning that even after fifty years Godzilla remains the thinking man’s monster movie.
A fine release with which to kick off the year, the BFI’s handling of Godzilla is nigh on superb in all departments. Only the uncommonly static menus disappoint as otherwise we are treated to a fine presentation and a series of exclusive extras, making this the definitive Godzilla.
Retaining the original Academy ratio and indeed the original Japanese cut of the film, the print is in generally fine condition. Certainly, the stock footage doesn’t look to be of the best quality, nor indeed some of the SFX shots, but then these are flaws inherent in the film’s production, not the disc’s manufacture. Indeed, technically speaking the disc does an excellent job: the clarity and detail are generally fine; the contrast levels waver a little but for the most part are similarly fine; and there are no major flaws to speak of, plus we’re getting a progressive transfer. Perhaps even better is the soundtrack. Present in its original Japanese mono (as Dolby Digital 2.0) with optional English subtitles, this comes across superbly. There are reel-change crackles to be heard on occasion, but background hiss is at a minimum and, most importantly, the roar sounds terrific.
Of the extras, the main attraction is the commentary by a trio of Godzilla experts. In the recording booth we find Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Ultimate Mon-Star, Ed Godziszewski, author of The Illustrated Godzilla Encyclopaedia, and Keith Aiken who served as animator on Sony’s recent animated series of Godzilla. Serving as a kind of commentating tag team, each takes turns to divulge their fascinating snippets of background information and trivia. Admittedly, there’s much more of this than there is any kind of analysis, but when their chat covers everything from how Ifukube made the roar to the differences in the Raymond Burr-starring US re-edit, there really is little room to complain.
Elsewhere Godziszewski contributes a pair of featurettes which allow him to give more concentrated bursts of discussion than the commentary had room for. As the titles suggest ‘Designing Godzilla’ touches on the rubber suit and the like, whilst ‘Story Evolution’ concentrates more heavily on the script and its influences. We also find another short piece on the disc, perhaps my personal favourite of the various features. Entitled ‘The Japanese Fishermen’, it’s a 1954 documentary short telling of the real-life effects America’s nuclear tests had on Japan: from the acid rain to the fishermen who caught leukaemia. Though a Japanese-made piece, it here comes with a British voice-over, not that it loses any of its potency. Indeed, its direct relevance to Godzilla itself only serves to heighten the main feature’s effects.
Rounding off the package we also find a pair of trailers (one for the Japanese version, another for the US edit) and a trio of galleries devoted to, respectively, posters (though a commemorative matchbox, a comic book and a pop-up book also figure), storyboards, and sketches and stills. Meanwhile, the packaging itself – which is of the deluxe variety, similar in style to the BFI’s earlier release of La Belle et la bête - also contains a lovingly produced 16-page booklet full of new liner notes, brief bios for the major players, full credits and plenty of stills and poster designs.