Gojira is the best giant movie monster ever; even better than King Kong.
That's a bold statement, I know, because, like you, I have a deep and lifelong admiration for the 1933 version of King Kong. It's amazing. The original (un-Americanized) version of Gojira (1954, aka Godzilla) is, fine, if not exactly "better" (whatever that means), but at least a whole lot darker, smarter, and meaningful. If King Kong was a story about how "civilized" man can and will destroy natural things, then Godzilla is a story about the aftermath. Kong may represent one of the last, lingering traces of history's most mysterious creatures, but Godzilla is about a harrowingly awesome creature that we create through our own ignorance and arrogance.
The fact that the original Godzilla is an obvious metaphor for war and destruction -- but the nuclear bomb in particular -- has been well-documented for 50+ years by writers much wiser than myself, but as I sat and enjoyed the frankly gorgeous new transfer of the film, I was struck by how sad, how somber, and how serious Gojira is. This is not even remotely a "wow, look at that cool monster!" sort of spectacle. The title creature is meant to be horrific on the screen, and even scarier for what he represents: the horrors of not simply war, but the aftermath, the residual effects, the lifelong threat of fallout radiation. With the shadow of the Hiroshima bomb and the even more recent tragedy of the "Lucky Dragon" fishing boat, the citizens of Japan were well aware of how horrifying the atomic age could be, and so they made a movie about it. In 1942 Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamto (allegedly) said that he feared that the attacks on Pearl Harbor had "awakened a sleeping giant.) In 1954, that quote was presented quite literally in Ishiro Honda's Gojira.
Like most American kids, I grew up on the American version of Gojira, which was released in 1956 with the title "Godzilla: King of the Monsters." Added to the film was a rather clunky subplot about an American reporter (Raymond Burr), and while this version did a great job of transporting the instantly infamous beast to American shores, virtually every genre fan would agree that the original Japanese version is the superior rendition. Those who know little of Godzilla outside of the Americanized version and the umpteen sequels may be surprised to note how stone-faced serious Gojira is, but once you grasp the rather simple subtext that's being employed by Honda (and his co-writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata), you understand why Gojira isn't exactly a fun-time monster movie: what you're watching is a group of Japanese people express their fear and concern about nuclear weapons in a frank but still entertaining way. If you cannot grasp the warnings that this movie has to offer, you need to focus a bit more on the subtitles and a little less on the rubber-suited monster.
As a surprise to absolutely no one, the fine folks at Criterion Collection have done a bang-up job of transferring this epic horror movie to the digital age. Their blu-ray transfer is nothing short of a revelation, especially if (like me) you've only seen this film in grainy UHF formats or too-dark video transfers. (Honda's use of shadow is really something to appreciate, and it's virtually impossible to do so without a pristine-looking transfer.) Akira Ifukube's now-immortal score is as commanding and powerful as ever, and Godzilla's first shrieks have never sounded quite so infuriated to my ears. And once you're finished rediscovering this dark masterpiece, you can switch over to the Americanized version to see all the fascinating ways we used to try and make foreign films a little more palatable for matinee audiences. Author and Godzilla mega-guru David Kalat provides fascinating audio commentary for both (!) versions of Godzilla, and there are also some great interview segments with actors, effects technicians, (my favorite) Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, a somber history lesson about the fishing vessel that partially inspired the Godzilla screenplay, a pair of cool old trailers, and a fold-out essay booklet from critic J. Hoberman.
Kudos, as usual, to Criterion for treating a classic genre film right; the supplementary material is grade-A brilliant, the film itself looks and sounds like true magic... basically, this Godzilla is a must-have addition to any legitimate horror film collection. And yes, it's worth the few extra bucks that Criterion always asks for. Quality like this doesn't grow on trees, you know.