THE BASEMENT BLU-RAY REVIEW: “GODZILLA: THE SHOWA-ERA FILMS, 1954–1975 The Criterion Collection”

71Gc4Yf76gL._SL1500_I have been a lover of Godzilla movies since the early 1970s, when I could watch them almost weekly on the various UHF stations that were available in my area. Over the years I have collected all of the movies on DVD, slowly replacing them with the blu-rays, as they became available. When Criterion announced the release of this collection I became very excited. Not only is Criterion known for releasing the best copies possible, but the entire Showa series was being released at once and I was very happy with their release of the original film, GODZILLA, in 2012.

When the set arrived, I immediately had mixed feelings. First off was the packaging. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that there are 15 movies but only 8 discs, with the eighth disc being supplemental material. I initially felt that to put multiple movies on one disc would mean that compression would be needed for them to fit, lowering the quality of the movies. I will address each movie below.

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The entire set comes in an oversized book, measuring 15 by 11 inches. This size is so awkward, and unnecessary, as it will not fit on any book shelf, let alone a movie shelf. It needs to be stored lying flat on its side. The eight discs slide into slots on the last page and inside cover and to be honest, they can be a bit of a challenge to get out. The last page, though made of cardboard has a bit of play to it so you can angle it to get the discs but the inside cover is stiffer board, making it very difficult for disc removal.

Criterion should’ve either included a smaller box that the discs could’ve fit in with easier access or redesigned the whole package so that it was more compact and could fit on a normal movie shelf. Bigger is not necessarily better. I can see in time that not only will the book end up getting unnecessary wear and tear but the chances of scratching the discs will increase as well. None of the original movie posters are included in this set, instead opting for artwork by a wide variety of artists. As a very nostalgic person, I would’ve preferred the original posters as I find some of the new artwork not only loud, but something that I will probably not be looking at very often. Perhaps a side-by-side comparison of both the Japanese and US posters would’ve been better.  Though the information in the book is sound on each movie, the artwork for me is just too much of a distraction.

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Though not a major complaint on my part, in its advertising they say “English-language dub tracks & new English subtitle translations.” This would lead you to believe that each of the movies feature the original Japanese versions subtitled in English as well as the English dubs. In actuality, only  INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER, SON OF GODZILLA, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA have International English-dubbed tracks and both GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS and KING KONG VS. GODZILLA have the original US dubs.

Whether this is true or not, rumor has it that Toho was never happy with the original US dubs of these films, feeling that they were disrespectful, so only gave Criterion access to the International dubs of some of the films. The problem with this, in my opinion, is that the International dubs come off as flat whereas most of the earlier US dubs were actually pretty respectful to the original source material. I do wonder why Toho would approve US dubs for companies like Classic Media and Kraken, when Criterion has the reputation of releasing the very best?

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The Godzilla Collection by Classic Media.

Personally I prefer the subtitled versions of all Japanese films, since in my opinion this is how they were meant to be seen. From time to time though I do like to watch the old UPA and Henry G. Saperstein dubs for nostalgic reasons. At least in my case I can always watch my Classic Media or Kraken copies.

Now let’s get into the movies themselves, which is really why someone would want this set. I did see some negative reviews on Amazon about this set for not including movies such as RODAN, MOTHRA and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. All you need to do is look at the title of this collection to realize why they were not part of it and negative reviews should not be based on that fact. I have watched all fifteen films, in the original Japanese language with English subtitles in this collection for the following section. Where available, I have also watched part of the English dubbed versions to get a sense of how they come off. All of these details will be included with each film. I will not be getting into plots too much as I am sure that if you are reading this review, then you are aware of the plots. I plan on going into plot details for each film in future blogs.

GODZILLA (1954): Disc one features the movie that started it all, GODZILLA. The main film is the Japanese version but under the supplements section of this disc you can find the US version, starring Raymond Burr. This dark and atmospheric film looks fantastic with the Japanese version, considering its age, and the subtitles are very clear. It’s nice to see, that after all these years, that it still holds up so well. The American version for the most part looks good, but only with the American-shot scenes. The dubbed Japanese scenes look darker and often feature a lot of scratches on the film. The contrast between the US and Japanese shot scenes are at times like night and day. I can’t blame Criterion for this as I am sure decent copies of this version are hard to come by. The movie features commentary by David Kalat, author of the book “A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series.” There are also multiple documentaries in the supplements section on the making of this ground-breaking film. The trailer is also included here.

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955): The first film on disc 2 is this quickly-made sequel. Only the Japanese language version is on this disc and there is no supplemental material. Personally this is my least favorite film of the Showa era simply because it seems so rushed, with many of the monster scenes not being filmed with a highspeed camera causing the monster scenes to seem sped up, destroying the illusion of mass. The print is very nice, with only occasional scratching, and looks the best it ever has and the subtitles are clear and very easy to read. This movie also introduced Angillas to the Toho universe.

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963): After a brief hiatus, Godzilla returned to battle King Kong. This is the second film on disc two. This fun film is only shown in the US version on this disc with no supplemental material other than the trailer and it is the Universal dub. The print seems fuzzy to me but definitely watchable. The colors are vibrant which is nice, because at times these older films can appear flat and dull. When compared to the Universal Blu-ray release of 2014, it too is fuzzy but with much more muted colors. The Criterion version is definitely better.

MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964): This is the first of three films on disc three and there are no bonus materials to go with this film. The first thing I noticed when starting this movie is the rich sound of Akira Ifukube’s score. Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects are almost flawless in this film and look phenomenal on this disc. There does seem to be a glitch though as one scene cuts to the next. It’s hard to describe what is happening but it almost looks as though there is a very brief flash of white between each scene. It doesn’t happen every time but it does happen enough to be a distraction. This is a shame as this is one of my favorite Showa films. Though not as fuzzy as KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, there definitely is also a sharpness issue here. As with this entire collection, the subtitles look phenomenal.

As a side note, Criterion had this to say about the white flash: “What you’re seeing is not a defect. The white lines you are seeing in some of these GODZILLA titles are film splices that are part of the original 35 mm prints scanned by our licensor, Toho, for those masters. They are not distortions or errors introduced at the video or authoring stage, and are often visible because the original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio was preserved. Criterion’s key philosophy is to preserve and restore films to the best of our ability, without entirely erasing the history and the cinematic artifacts that you may experience in a theatrical viewing.” I am not sure what to think of this so because if it is in fact what is going on, then wouldn’t every movie have this?

GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (1964): This is the second of three films on disc three. I love that three of my all-time favorite Showa films are on one disc but I think having three movies on one disc reduces the quality, even on blu-ray. This movie introduces us to perhaps the coolest of the Toho monsters, Ghidorah. The audio also sounds great here with some great bass in Ifukube’s score. Sharpness and color are an improvement here and the glitching seen in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA is also in this film but not as often. There are no extras with this film.

INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965): This is the third and final film on disc three but both the Japanese and English dubs are available. The audio on the Japanese version is not as good as in the last two films, with Ifukube’s score sounding a bit tinny. The colors and sharpness are an improvement though. The English dub is the International dub, featuring the opening credits in Japanese. This is the first time I have seen the international dub and to me some of the voices sound the same used in the Henry G. Saperstein dub of GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO. This appears to be the same print as the Japanese print quality-wise.

EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP (1966): This is the first of three films on disc four. This film looks great; it is very clear and the colors are not washed out. It definitely has a different feel for a Godzilla film, but I am guessing it is because of Jun Fukuda’s direction and Masaru Sato’s score. This is a film that grew on me as I got older and it’s nice to see it looking this good.

SON OF GODZILLA (1967): This film, the second on disc four, also rates as one of my least favorites. It is available here in both Japanese and the International English dub. It does look good here in both clarity and color. Jun Fukuda also directed this one. Godzilla looks horrible in this film, probably to look friendlier to children, and the miniature work is starting to suffer. The monsters are rarely filmed near anything to show their scale. The swan song of this film are the giant praying mantises, the Kamacurus and the giant spider, Kumonga. These are all done with puppetry like marionettes and their movements and actions are very realistic. The international dub looks as good as the Japanese version and the dubbing is not distracting at all.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968): Another favorite is film three on disc four and it is available in both Japanese and International English dub forms. It’s nice to hear Akira Ifukube back scoring and see Ishiro Honda back directing. The print is very clear and the colors are very lush looking. My only complaint is that it’s so clear, you can actually see wires at times holding up the monsters and flying vehicles. It doesn’t take away from the viewing experience though. The International dub looks just as good but the voices used in dubbing are such a distraction, as I have seen the Henry G. Saperstein dub so many times.

ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969): Disc five features two movies, starting with this one, also known as GODZILLA’S REVENGE. Though this one is generally not high on the list by fans of favorite Godzilla films, I have fond memories of it as a child. It’s definitely geared to kids more than anyone else. This copy is very clear and though the color appears muted, I wonder if that’s the point in this case as it takes place in a heavily polluted part of Japan.

GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971): The second film on disc five is one of those films that either you love it or hate it. Regardless, here it can be seen in all of its glory with a very clear print. There are no extras for this film which may be a good thing as you don’t have to hear the “Save the Earth” song on the English dub. The miniature work in this film is also not up to par, with very little detail given to the buildings.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972): Disc six features two films, starting with this one. All of these films from the seventies look sharp with great sounding audio. It’s too bad that this level of quality couldn’t have been achieved with the films from the sixties. On the plus side Gigan looks pretty cool and any movie is better with Ghidorah in it. The subtitles are great looking and this movie definitely looks like it was made more recent than in 1972.

GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973): The second film on disc six is available in both Japanese and International English dub. Again, this film has never looked better with crisp video, strong color and great audio. The special effects in the beginning of the earth quake still hold up very well. Though this film does rely on stock footage at times, the new special effects scenes are actually pretty good, especially with the destruction of the dam. I had never seen the International English dub before and the audio is very tinny with no depth. I do feel this dub is acceptable though as the US dub of this film was not very good.

GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974): Disc seven features the last two films of the Showa era. Most of the films of the seventies had declined in quality, both in story telling and in special effects, often relying on stock footage to save money. These two films were a much needed turn though, with new monsters, new footage and a more serious approach. GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, and its sequel, have always been fan favorites and it’s nice to see this one so clear with great audio. It can be viewed in both the original Japanese or with the International English dub. Both versions look fantastic with great colors and clarity. The audio is strong on both versions as well, though the actual dubbing is horrible with voices very uncharacteristic of the actors.

TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975): The fifteenth Godzilla film opens with stock footage from the last one, perfectly setting up this direct sequel. Akira Ifukube is back and his music sounds amazing. This is also Ishiro Honda’s return to directing Godzilla films. Both the Japanese and International English dub are available and once again, they both look fantastic. The dubbing sounds horrible though, as if it was recorded in a box. The voices also do not sound like what you would expect the actors to sound like.

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Lastly there is disc eight, the supplements disc. This disc features a 1990 interview of Ishiro Honda by Yoshimitsu Banno, who directed GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH, entitled “My Life In Film.” Next is a program produced by Criterion featuring Alex Cox and his admiration of the Showa-era Godzilla films. Then there is another Criterion-produced program featuring Tsugotoshi Komada, who played Jet Jaguar in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON. Criterion then talks to actor and eventual Ultraman star Bin Furuya who talks about being a bit player in many Showa-era Godzilla films. This is followed by one of the last known on-camera interviews with renowned composer Akira Ifukube. The interviews are fun and inciteful, though I doubt you will watch them more than once.

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Next, for the first time ever in the United States, is the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. The film is fuzzy though the colors are vibrant. The volume of the audio was also much lower than the rest of the collection. I listened to this entire set at one volume and had to turn it up substantially watching this. One other thing I noticed, which I had never noticed before, is that the English speaking actors seemed to be dubbed in English.

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This is then followed by a 1986 program highlighting special effects sequences that were not included in the final releases of various Toho films. Next to the Japanese version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, this is the highlight of the supplement disc. One of the coolest scenes was of Godzilla fighting Manda from DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.

Then lastly, the trailers for all of these films are included. These are of varying quality, in Japanese and with English subtitles. This was a great way to end out this collection.

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Overall I am very happy with this set. Though there are flaws throughout, they are not enough to make this a collection not worth having. Personally, I would’ve preferred one movie per disc, perhaps including the International English dub when available and the trailer. This would’ve greatly increased the price though because the collection would now need sixteen discs as opposed to eight. I guess beggars can’t be choosers. To order your copy from Amazon just go HERE. To order direct from Criterion, go HERE.

~David Albaugh

 

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