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By Brad Cook | February 9, 2012

“Godzilla” may seem like an odd choice for a Criterion release, but Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film is a far cry from the silly suited lizard that bounced across the screen in later movies. The title character is treated much like the shark in “Jaws”: we see the effects of his attacks, but it’s a while before we see him on screen. In the meantime, relationships between the characters affected by the attacks play out, and the death of the monster at the end is tinged with a bittersweet quality because one of the main characters dies with him.

As the bonus features in this two-disc set point out, “Godzilla,” or “Gojira” as it was known in Japan, is a response to the hydrogen bomb test conducted by the U.S. on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. A Japanese fishing boat was exposed to the fall-out from that test, and one of its crew members died several months later. While the concept of a monster awakened by nuclear bomb testing and rampaging through a city may seem hokey today, Japanese audiences at the time knew of the real-life horror caused by radiation. (And, yes, they had already known all too well about atomic bombs after the way World War II ended nearly a decade earlier.)

“Godzilla” also has some nice character development, complete with a tragic love triangle and a scientist who would prefer that the monster be captured alive for study. Unsurprisingly, once the character proved to be popular, later films in the series eschewed character development for plenty of scenes of rampaging monsters. If you’re a fan of the character, you’ll enjoy the commentary tracks recorded by film historian David Kalat on both the 1954 “Godzilla” and the 1956 American version, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.” As in typical Criterion commentary recordings, Kalat’s discussions are like film classes; there’s little overlap between the commentaries on both versions.

The 1956 film, which adds Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, feels like watching the original version through a foggy window. Since it was assumed that American audiences wouldn’t flock to a movie with sub-titles, Martin pops into every scene to explain what’s happening; when people do speak Japanese, there are no sub-titles. Many scenes are also truncated or cut, and dire warnings about nuclear testing are watered down considerably. Even an explanation of an arranged marriage is cut, presumably because Americans would only be confused by the concept. The end result is the feeling that something is missing.

The other bonus features on this disc include an overview of the real story that inspired the film and featurettes starring key cast and crew members, along with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato. A booklet with an essay by film critic J. Hoberman is included too.

It had been many years since I watched the American version of the movie, and I had never seen the original, so revisiting Godzilla’s origins was a nice trip down memory lane. I appreciate Criterion preserving its place in history, even if it seems like an odd addition to the company’s catalog. (And let’s not forget that “The Blob” has a Criterion edition too.)

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