Disc Love: Godzilla Raids Again「ゴジラの逆襲」(2014 Toho Blu-ray)

Disc Love: Godzilla Raids Again「ゴジラの逆襲」(2014 Toho Blu-ray)

While the oft-lamented Godzilla’s Revenge may come close, it’s difficult to imagine another film in the series’ initial run that has been more regularly criticized, derided, and generally disliked than 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again. Produced swiftly in the wake of the 1954 original’s considerable success (it was playing cinemas just six months later), Godzilla Raids Again bucks the first film’s overt politicizing and potent allusion to Japan’s recent wartime experience and plays instead as a straight entertainment. I suspect that this is, in large part, why the film has become such a source of discontent. Sans the allegory of the first and made in a time before the studio’s unique fantasy tradition had become established, Godzilla Raids Again‘s overall competence as monster entertainment has been utterly overshadowed by the greater Toho daikaiju canon. With the following year’s Rodan jump-starting a golden age of tokusatsu production in color, Godzilla Raids Again‘s comparatively modest and apolitical black-and-white thrills just can’t compete.

More’s the pity, as judged by its own merits Godzilla Raids Again isn’t a bad little film at all. With Tokyo still in ruin following the first Godzilla’s appearance the 1955 film shifts its attentions to the heavily industrialized Osaka, and to the every-men therein. Studio scribes Takeo Murata (Rodan) and Shigeaki Hidaka (soon to be a director at Toei, where he would devise the grim The Final War) center the action around the workings of an Osaka tuna fishery, and on tuna spotters Tsukioka (relative newcomer Hiroshi Koizumi, Mothra) and Kobayashi (established star Minoru Chiaki, The Seven Samurai) in particular. When engine trouble strands Kobayashi on a remote deserted island Tsukioka comes to the rescue, but the pilots’ relief is cut short by the appearance on the island of two horrible monsters; a second Godzilla locked in ferocious combat with a new threat, the gigantic ankylosaur Angilas.

When the beasts’ battle plunges them into the depths of the sea the two pilots escape and make their way to the mainland, where they report the event to shocked authorities. When Godzilla is spotted, his course leading him dangerously close to Osaka, defensive plans are swiftly put into effect. A blackout is instituted city-wide while Self-Defense forces roll into position around Osaka Bay. Meanwhile JASDF aircraft drop flares in the direction of open sea, hoping that the light (reminiscent of the flash of the H-bomb, which forced the beast from his deep-sea niche) will lure Godzilla from populated areas. Just as the plan seems poised to work disaster strikes. A blaze erupts in a nearby fuel refinery, and Godzilla once more sets his sights on Osaka. Events take a still more dreadful turn when the pursuing Angilas also appears, intent on resuming its battle with Godzilla…

Resident Toho program picture director Motoyoshi Oda keeps Godzilla Raids Again‘s rather sparse drama (dominated by a spare romance between Koizumi’s pilot and fishery radio operator Setsuko Wakayama, Battle of Roses) moving at a decent pace, and the picture’s special effects highlight – the razing of Osaka by Godzilla and Angilas – arrives less than half an hour after the monsters’ first appear. In the interim the film builds a potent sense of doom-and-gloom, with Koizumi and Wakayama pondering their future as squads JASDF jets patrol the suddenly militarized Osaka (writer Hidaka would utilize this juxtaposition of human drama and heightened military activity to even better effect for 1960’s The Final War). Masaru Sato’s occasionally brilliant score packs the final disquieting punch, punctuating Godzilla’s initial appearance in Osaka Bay with a rumbling blend of cymbals, gong, and harp.

With the landfall of Godzilla and Angilas the special effects, directed again by Eiji Tsuburaya with photographic direction by Sadamasa Arikawa (The Mighty Peking Man), take center stage. The miniatures of Osaka are as intricate and detailed as any devised by Tsuburaya and company, and Arikawa adds depth to some of the wider shots with in-camera mattes of clouded skies. Process photography is more frequent and more ambitious than in the first film, allowing the monsters to duel behind live action of of fleeing civilians or location shots of certain landmarks (a precursor to the monster travelogues that crop up so frequently in the ’90s films), though the lack of a proper optical printer among Toho’s assets lends the shots a rather unstable quality. Military efforts against the two monsters are managed largely through trick photography as well, with footage of exploding ordnance and inbound rockets composited over shots of Godzilla and Angilas brawling (this method would be refined for the following year’s Rodan).

Then, of course, there are the monsters themselves. The second Godzilla suit improved heavily upon the first with regards to mobility, if not necessarily in its aesthetics. The spiky quadruped Angilas makes for an interesting visual counterpoint to the film’s slender, bipedal Godzilla, and their combat choreography is more consistently direct and physical than what would be seen in most of the later series entries. The swift progression of the battle, from Osaka Bay and the city’s industrial districts to iconic Osaka Castle, ups the pace of destruction considerably – Godzilla and Angilas absolutely steamroll the miniature Osaka on their way to a climactic final showdown by the city’s most famous landmark. Augmenting all this is one of Godzilla Raids Again‘s more maligned aspects – a wealth of footage of hand-operated Godzilla and Angilas puppets, which Tsuburaya and company utilize whenever close-ups of the monsters are called for. The puppets themselves are of love-’em or hate-’em stuff (love ’em!), and the overall effectiveness of the technique will depend purely on your willingness to look beyond the transparency of the method and buy into the action portrayed (and there is a lot of it). For his part Tsuburaya seems to have been quite enamored with the process, and puppets of his various giant critters made frequent appearances through 1964’s Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster.

While Godzilla Raids Again is to be commended for getting to the action early, the film missteps a bit in running its monster conflict concept through to its logical conclusion (spoiler: Godzilla wins) with three full reels yet to play. After the siege of Osaka it is left to the human drama to keep pace until Godzilla inevitably re-emerges and is ultimately dealt with, and while there’s nothing objectively wrong with Murata and Hidaka’s low-key distractions here one would be forgiven for finding them less melodramatic than might have been hoped for in such a case. While his home fishery picks up the pieces and limps back to operation spotter Kobayashi takes a job with a Hokkaido operation, where he finds personal fulfillment and perhaps even a first love (he keeps coy through to the bitter end). Quaint, but not exactly thrilling. It can’t last, however, and when word arrives that Godzilla has resurfaced, sinking one of the Hokkaido fishery’s ships in the process, Tsukioka and Kobayashi join the Self-Defense Forces’ search for the beast and eventually track him to an isolated and icebound island. There the stage is set for a final confrontation in which modern military might and no small sum of human sacrifice will be pit against one giant monster’s nigh-irrevocable might.

The finale of Godzilla Raids Again is practically a celebration of Japan’s nationalist spirit, and quite the change of pace from the elegiac underwater conclusion of the first film. Tsukioka joins ranks with friends from the time of the Imperial Navy, now with the JASDF, and flies bravely into battle against a seemingly insurmountable foe while Kobayashi’s self-sacrificial actions (scored with a brassy tragic-heroic sting from Sato) evoke the suicide pilots of a decade prior. The sensibility is doubtless comparable to that of the many war films produced by Toho around the same time, and geared to play at the same audience sympathies. It’s a good, if transparent, trick – nationalism as escapism has always been bankable (put a Transformer(c)(r)(tm)(etc) in front of an American flag and watch the millions roll in). Nationalism or no I find the sequence itself quite exciting, and there’s a delicious sort of justice to the JASDF’s plan to dispense with Godzilla – burying him, a monster born of atomic fire, under a mountain of ice. The montage here can be overpowering in its repetition (rockets firing, explosions, a torrent of falling ice, repeat), as though Godzilla is to be defeated through sheer force of editing alone. Tsuburaya’s effects direction is typically excellent, as is Arikawa’s effects photography (the mattes that expand the icy island sets are lovely), and production of the sequence doubtless proved informative for the pair, who would engineer a very similar setup (with regards to its effects at least) for the finale of Rodan the following year.

Lesser than the first and well overshadowed by what was to come, Godzilla Raids Again has the dubious honor of being “the second one” in what would improbably become one of cinema’s most indomitable franchises. Indeed, it’s doubtful anyone at Toho would have or could have seen Godzilla’s potential as a series player at the time of Godzilla Raids Again‘s production, though King Kong vs. Godzilla‘s monumental box office take would convince them otherwise soon enough. Still, as second ones go Godzilla Raids Again isn’t half bad. The effects can still thrill even if the drama barely simmers, and though the novelty of the daikaiju throw-down has been worn down to its atoms through decades of reiteration Godzilla’s first monster battle remains good mean fun. Besides, I dig those groovy puppets.

Nearly four and a half years since their last round of tokusatsu blu-rays made it to market, Toho Visual Entertainment are finally back in the game. Godzilla Raids Again was just one of the sixteen new Godzilla blu-rays to see release last month as part of the company’s celebration of the monster’s 60th anniversary, and a title long awaited by… well, me at least. (…And plenty of others, I’m sure – I don’t pretend to be the only one out there who enjoys Godzilla Raids Again. It just feels that way sometimes.)

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Aesthetically Godzilla Raids Again is in keeping with Toho Visual’s past genre Blu-ray releases, and arrives with an attractive slipcase that duplicates the blu-ray sleeve art. The first edition pressing also comes with a 60th anniversary obi wrap advertising both that celebration and the Japanese release of this year’s Godzilla. The disc itself is an all-region compatible dual layer BD50. The main menu boots immediately after the Toho Visual Entertainment bumper and rights notices (both skippable), and while it looks precisely in keeping with the menus on the company’s past discs the functions have been subtly improved upon. Aside from being smoother in action the menu also loads more swiftly than in the past, with no dedicated “loading” screen intruding, and the gruesome and useless two-option selection screens which preceded the main menus on past Toho Visual releases have blessedly been done away with.

Godzilla Raids Again was released on July 16 of this year and retails for ¥4,700 (plus tax, where applicable). Those interested in the film should note that Splendid Film in Germany have also released a Blu-ray of this title, and while it is bereft of extras (the German version of the film included on the earlier DVD edition is absent) and very likely region B locked, it also carries a significantly lower price tag (around EUR 10.00 at Amazon.de).

For better or worse Godzilla Raids Again is sourced from the same Hi-Vision restoration that first premiered on Japanese television in 2008, and while I’m pleased overall with the results they are certainly far from perfect. Like many of Toho’s high definition transfers Godzilla Raids Again is fairly soft, and while textures and detail (particularly in the monster designs) show up well they aren’t as clearly defined as they perhaps could or should be. The overall softness of the image prevents the texture of the film itself from ever really showing through as well, though I suspect no overzealous application of smoothing or noise reduction filters. I think this transfer was likely soft from the outset, and zooming in reveals noise lurking in the darker portions of the image (quite minor and unobtrusive in practice, but it is there).

One wonders at the state of the perforations on the surviving elements for Godzilla Raids Again, as the only stable and consistent aspect of the high definition master is how consistently unstable it is. While a handful of opticals fare the worst, with added judder baked right in, there is considerable motion to the frame elsewhere as well. How much of this could have been fixed digitally and how much at the frame edges would be compromised in the process is beyond me. Otherwise Godzilla Raids Again can appear a touch foggy (a result of the elements used, dupes well removed from the presumably non-extant OCN, as SD masters have had this issue as well), and contrast is quite flat throughout. Minor damage in the form of speckles and light scratches is present throughout, along with a few instances of heavier damage, and there is some overall instability in the elements that lends the image a sort of blotchiness in playback.

It may sound as though I’m giving Godzilla Raids Again a tough shake, but given the preservation status of so many classic Japanese films of this period (most of which now exist only in degraded 35mm elements) it is always best to keep expectations soundly in check. I don’t think Godzilla Raids Again looks bad at all in practice, but it is quite rough overall and certainly not up to any sort of digital restoration standard. A more robust 2K or 4K attempt could result in better, and likely considerably so (see my comments in the extras section), but the likelihood of this is who-knows-what. Until then, the new Blu-ray offers a decent if not especially spectacular presentation of the film that improves upon the SD iterations of the past, even if only in a limited fashion. Technical specifications are robust, with even this brief feature (82 minutes) creeping into dual layer territory. Godzilla Raids Again is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.34:1 by way of an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at a sky-high average bitrate of 38.3 Mbps. The transfer undoubtedly has its issues, but encoding deficiencies are not among them.

Godzilla Raids Again has never sounded particularly fresh in its various home video iterations, and the Blu-ray continues that trend with an honest presentation of meddlesome elements. The film’s original Japanese track is presented in 2 channel monophonic LPCM (16 bit, 48 kHz) and can sound quite strong in patches and quite weak in others. Whether due to limitations in the original recording or deterioration of the source elements or both, Godzilla Raids Again has some distortion at the high end (notable during some of Sato’s cues) as well as a bit of persistent background hiss and crackle. Dialogue generally comes through clearly enough, and the monster roars can sound unexpectedly robust in places (particularly Godzilla’s). None of this is really a change from how the film has sounded in the past, but I can’t complain. As is their norm, Toho Visual offer no English audio options and no English subtitles, though a set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are accessible if needed.

With no artificial surround bumps up for consideration (I imagine they’d be pretty lousy given the elements at hand anyway), Godzilla Raids Again‘s second listening option is instead an isolated track of Masaru Sato’s alternately inspired and mundane score for the film. While the sources here still have some limitations (some background hiss here and there, the occasional pop) the overall sound is very nice indeed in 2 channel monophonic DTS-HD MA (16 bit, 48 kHz, 1.7 Mbps). Sato’s more generic cues come through nice and clear, but the stand-out tracks are his more experimental ones – like the mix of modulated cymbals, gong, and harp, so bizarre as to be nearly alienated from their instruments of origin, and the meandering of breathy strings and low reeds that heralds Godzilla’s arrival in Osaka Bay. At its worst, as during Koizumi and Wakayama’s romantic chit-chats or Kobayashi’s sacrificial end, the score here is bland and overstated, but in its best moments Sato crafts beautifully, almost profoundly understated material the likes of which the Godzilla series, with its overtones of horror on the wane, would never hear again. It’s a fascinating if occasionally underwhelming score, and it was wonderful to be able to revisit it in this way, lossless and in context with the scenes for which it was composed.

Toho Visual have offered up an unexpected wealth of material on their latest Godzilla blu-rays, providing a wide array of new stuff to consider instead of just rehashing the content of their older DVDs. Godzilla Raids Again is no exception, and while it loses the vast still galleries present on Toho’s R2 DVD it also gains a lot of valuable content all its own.

First up is an item as aggravating as it is interesting – a dispatch trailer (HD, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, 1:18) hitherto unseen, featuring both finished dramatic shots and previously unseen B-roll effects footage, including a few alternate takes from those seen in the film and a few shots utterly unrepresented in the finished product. The original audio appears to have been lost in so far as this brief dispatch is concerned, and as such Toho have (rather carelessly) tracked in sound effects, dialogue, and music from the finished film. This is avoided easily enough with the mute button if one so chooses, and is no big deal. The point of frustration is the transfer which, though un-restored and littered with damage and image instabilities, still manages to look a good deal better than the feature presentation does. Godzilla Raids Again was never going to be a tack-sharp production on the order of those seen today, and to expect such would be unrealistic to the point of absurdity, but the trailer (obviously sourced from a newer scan than the film itself) still improves quite drastically with regards to clarity and finer detail, and the fine patina of grain finally shines through. I doubt the surviving elements for the feature could ever look quite this good, further removed as they are from the OCN, but oh what could have been if this quality of scan had been done of them! Toho Visual present the trailer at the proper Academy ratio of 1.37:1 with a robust Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a high average bitrate of 35.8 Mbps. Screenshots below.

Next up is Movie Theater Broadcast SP (standard play) Record: Godzilla Raids Again / Godzilla (HD, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, 6 minutes), which presents a pair of rare dramatic advertisements (one each for the 1954 and 1955 films respectively) sourced, as you would expect, from studio-issued SP records. These make for a neat listen, particularly the more heavily dramatized (and far rougher sounding) 1954 advertisement. Video accompaniment includes still shots of the records from which the audio was sourced with informative notations in Japanese.

Snapshot View: Special Technique of Godzilla Raids Again (HD, Dolby Digital sound, 12 minutes) is as close as the new Toho Visual Blu-ray comes to emulating the comprehensive image galleries of the original Toho DVD, and features a good deal of behind-the-scenes still photos (with Japanese subtitle notation) showing the design and eventual construction of Angilas and Godzilla in their myriad forms, as well as the construction and summary demolition of the miniature sets of Osaka (including the stunningly realized build of Osaka Castle) by the rampaging monsters, a few publicity shots of the cast visiting the effects and of the monsters horsing around on the Toho lot, and some documentation of the on-location shooting. The stills are all gorgeously re-scanned in HD, even if they are less numerous than on the past DVD, and make for a great watch.

Next up is Godzilla’s Creation! Yoshio Suzuki (HD, Dolby Digital sound, 20 minutes), a lengthy new discussion about Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again with the one-time Toho bit actor and regular director of Tsuburaya effects television (including Ultraseven, Ultraman Ace, and non-Tsuburaya projects like The Super Robot Red Baron). Rounding out the new material on disc is an HD image gallery of the original theater brochure for the film, which prominently features a good deal of illustrated key art that might have made its way into newspapers around the time of release. A feature audio commentary (Dolby Digital encoded) with late effects cinematographer Sadamasa Arikawa and his assistant Tomioka Motoyoshi rounds out the Blu-ray’s supplemental content, and is the only item (the aforementioned isolated score excepted) to have been ported from the earlier R2 DVD.

Toho have a 4k restoration of the original Godzilla that’s been playing cinemas recently, and one sincerely hopes that the rest of the series eventually gets that kind of attention – or at the very least fresh 2K scans, restored or no. Godzilla Raids Again could certainly use another pass, but if this is the best it ever gets I think I may just live. Despite the issues enumerated in the Video section above the film plays well enough, and Toho certainly haven’t skimped on the supplements. Fans with more than a passing interest in the picture (and the expendable income to blow on Japanese imports) are encouraged to indulge, but to keep their expectations for the feature presentation firmly in check. Otherwise the lower priced and bare-bones German Blu-ray may be the way to go.
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