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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「ゴジラ」 Godzilla (1954)

With the new Godzilla due in theaters in but a few days time the Film Society of Minneapolis – St. Paul, in conjunction with Rialto Pictures, have returned the 1954 original to its rightful place on the big screen. 「ゴジラ」 Godzilla can be seen at the St. Anthony Main Theatre from May 9th through May 15th. Click here for details.

Unleashed upon the Japanese public to massive popular success in late fall of 1954, Godzilla was one of those rare perfect storms of cinema, a picture so tremendous in its impact that it ushered in not only a distinct new genre of Japanese film, but a bona fide pop culture revolution as well. It also struck a chord with a post-war Japan fresh from years of occupation and only just allowed to openly discuss the full sum of its wartime experiences. Godzilla‘s considerable box office take all but ensured the long run of increasingly silly (albeit much beloved) sequels that followed, and anyone familiar with those alone might be forgiven for expecting the same here, but the father of them all is a somber and often downright cerebral affair, and possessed of a raw power not seen in the genre since. More than just another monster movie, much more, Godzilla is also a spectacular public exorcism of the lingering specters of World War II, the grim expression of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with its history as both a perpetrator and a victim of incalculable wartime devastation.

The story begins with a series of dreadful shipping accidents off the coast of Japan, an investigation into which leads reporters and government officials to remote Odo Island, a sparsely populated speck of land near to where the accidents occurred. There they find no answers beyond the superstitious ramblings of one of the island’s elders, who is convinced that the mythical Godzilla – a mysterious sea beast the Odo Islanders once sated with human sacrifice – is responsible for the maritime troubles. No one believes a word of it until some thing comes ashore one storm-torn evening, leveling several of the island’s residences and leaving a set of impossibly huge footprints in its wake.

A scientific expedition headed by noted zoologist Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura) is swiftly mounted to survey the destruction and investigate its cause. Once the scientists are on the island they make a series of surprising discoveries. The footprints left behind are intensely radioactive, and the area around them dangerously contaminated. What’s more, they’re littered with ancient sediments and the remnants of primitive life long thought extinct, suggesting a destructive force from straight out of prehistory. It isn’t long before more conclusive evidence arrives in the form of a mountainous Jurassic-age monster – the Godzilla of Odo Island legend – with its sights set on Japan’s thriving metropolitan heart.

Co-written by director Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata (Rodan) from an original story by Shigeru Kayama (which he also novelized), the basics of Godzilla‘s narrative development are pretty traditional, writ large, with the origins for the monster having been freely adapted from elements of the classic King Kong (an island, a legend, talk of human sacrifice) and the contemporary The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (about a prehistoric monster roused from its icy slumbers by an atomic test in the Arctic). Indeed, the idea of a dinosaur wreaking havoc on modern civilization was nothing new to cinema at the time, having been seen previously in the silent The Lost World, Max Fleischer’s Superman short The Arctic Giant, as well as in Godzilla‘s most direct inspiration, the aforementioned Beast. The difference, as ever, is in the details.

Under the creative auspices of Honda, Kayama, Murata, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and even composer Akira Ifukube1, Godzilla‘s eponymous monster grew to become one of the most singularly loaded metaphors in film history. Through references both overt and subliminal to such events as the irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru by the Castle Bravo H-bomb test, the fall of radioactive rain resulting from Soviet atomic tests, the firebombing of Tokyo and the A-bombing of Nagasaki, Godzilla becomes a fearsome and direct manifestation both of the horrors of World War II and the new and frightening realities of the Atomic Age. The monster’s steady, methodical destruction of modern Tokyo is a sequence unlike anything before it. Godzilla advances with the unrelenting force of an atomic blast, sending whole blocks crumbling into smoldering rubble and engulfing the city’s skyline in a curtain of nuclear flame. Dialogue clarifies whatever doubts may be lingering as to the rampage’s symbolic significance – “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head…“

In Godzilla’s wake millions lie dead or dying, both of physical injuries and radioactive contamination, while countless traumatized survivors wonder what terrors are yet to come. The imagery here – endless corridors filled with the wounded and an entire city reduced to wasteland – is potent, and evocative not only of the haunting aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of the wartime razing of Tokyo as well. Even Godzilla himself is granted a history of victimization, with Dr. Yamane insinuating that, much like Japan’s A-bomb survivors, the creature is traumatized by its recent brush with American nuclear might. “Don’t shine searchlights on Godzilla!” he gravely begs of a military officer, fearful that they might remind of the blinding flash that tore him from his deep sea niche and send the monster into a deeper rage. Of course Godzilla is not just a victim, but an aggressor as well, and the vision of a dragon rising from the Pacific alludes strongly to the ugly flip side of Japan’s wartime misfortune – the fact that through their own militant nationalism and the brutal campaign of conquest that resulted from it, they had brought that misfortune upon themselves.

To that end the central dramatic conflict of the film might be viewed as an allusion to the position of the Allied forces during the war. Godzilla, awakened by the H-bomb and impervious to all modern munitions, seems unstoppable, but a brilliant young scientist – Dr. Serizawa (a convincing young Akihiko Hirata) – may have found an answer. The problem? His discovery has such immense destructive potential that any use of it, however good the cause, could prove catastrophic. It’s a narrative development that dramatically echoes the creation and eventual use of the Atom bomb in the final days of World War II, and which implies a clear understanding by Honda and his colleagues of the position of the Allied forces at the time. With a marauding force like the Imperial Japanese military dangerously at large, do you set aside your most powerful weapon for fear of the horrific consequences of its use or do you use it in spite of them? What the Allies decided is history, and their decision is paralleled by that of Dr. Serizawa. The result is that Godzilla is stopped, though at a tremendous cost. Another elemental force, as horrifying as the H-bomb, has been set loose upon the world, and the film concludes with a grave Dr. Yamane wondering what other Godzillas might be unleashed as a result.

In terms of drama Godzilla has certainly aged in the decades since it was made, and a forgettable love triangle between Toho’s brightest young stars (top-billed Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata) will be of minimal interest to modern viewers, but the complex substance of the thing remains, its power undiminished in the 60 years since it was made. A waking nightmare of both the past and future and the unlikely birthplace of a pop culture icon, Godzilla is perhaps the best of its ilk ever made, and still stands as the ultimate, indelible atomic monster experience.

1 Some of Ifukube’s cues for the film, both the elegiac pieces set to Godzilla’s aftermath and demise and the descending motif that accompanies the earlier ship disasters, are highly evocative (and in the latter case a direct adaptation) of his past work on Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima (a somber, thoughtful film about the human toll of the Hiroshima bombing), an allusion that only further cements Godzilla‘s connection to World War II and the burgeoning Atomic Age.

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Wtf-Film in January of 2012 (in conjunction with the Criterion Collection issue of the film on home video), and has been significantly edited and revised for its publication here.

Mothra vs. Godzilla 「モスラ 対 ゴジラ」2010 Toho Blu-ray

posterJP_1In the wake of a powerful typhoon a gigantic egg is found drifting off the coast of Japan. Seen as a bad omen by some, the egg is soon taken over by an enterprising young billionaire and his sidekick, a greedy talent agent, who intend to make it the centerpiece of their new amusement park. There’s just one catch – the owner of the egg is none other than the god-monster Mothra, and she wants it back!

Enter reporter Sakai (Takarada) who, along with photographer girlfriend Junko (Hoshi) and the helpful Professor Miura (Koizumi), takes up the cause of Mothra and her envoy, a pair of twin foot-tall princesses (the Ito sisters). Before anything can be done about the egg another disaster strikes. Buried in the muck left behind by the typhoon is Godzilla, who emerges from his temporary prison to lay siege to the Japanese countryside. Sakai and his friends must travel to the nuke-blasted Infant Island, home of Mothra and her peaceful followers, in hopes of convincing the only good monster in the neighborhood to help save Japan and its people from the unstoppable onslaught of Godzilla.

After the lukewarm reception of their dull, black and white production of Godzilla Raids Again, Toho Company went on a brief hiatus from new Godzilla adventures and instead focused on a variety of other tokusatsu concepts, some involving monsters and some not. By the time they revisited their budding franchise in 1962 Toho had become a special effects powerhouse, their product now easily discernible from their contemporaries’ by its dazzling color and ‘Scope production values. What’s more, the company now had a whole host of monsters at their disposal – not just Godzilla and Angilas, but Rodan, Varan and, most popular of all, Mothra.

Mothra’s self-titled 1961 debut had been a smash for Toho Company, earning millions more than even the original Godzilla and soundly trouncing its first sequel at the box office. The company’s 1962 blockbuster King Kong vs. Godzilla had pitted the Toho creation against a popular, but expensive, foreigner. When the time came for Godzilla’s fourth film outing Toho wisely chose to put him up against an in-house creature, one that had already proven successful in a solo production all its own. Mothra’s debut as a franchise player would lead to a decades-long relationship with the King of the Monsters in which the pair would co-star in no fewer than nine films.

The juxtaposition of the two monsters here remains a potent one nearly fifty years out, thanks in large part to the starkly contrasting ideas they represent. Godzilla would make the unlikely transition to hero later the same year, but is still deadly serious stuff in Mothra vs. Godzilla. The towering embodiment of the horrors unleashed by the nuclear age, the beast here possesses a palpable menace not seen since the first film. At one point he takes on the unexpected but thematically appropriate role of executioner, dispensing cosmic justice when the billionaire Torahata (Kenji Sahara) commits mortal sin to defend his fortune from a man he wronged.

Mothra exists as a rejection of Godzilla’s nuclear threat, as hope for life in a world now capable of destroying itself multiple times over. A creature of beauty hailing from an island decimated by nuclear testing, Mothra is the antithesis of the typical atomic monster – a representative of life and rebirth as opposed to the harbinger of death and destruction. Director Ishiro Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa utilize Mothra not only as an indictment of unchecked nuclear proliferation but as a symbol of resilience during a cold war. She would return as a monster mediator in the same year’s Ghidrah: the Three Headed Monster, effectively chastising world leaders (represented by Godzilla and Rodan) for being unable to resolve their differences for the sake of the greater good.

Effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and his team (a handful of talented genre artisans including Teruyoshi Nakano, Akira Watanabe and Sadamasa Arikawa) craft the most engrossing scenes of monster combat of their age for Mothra vs. Godzilla, scenes bolstered by clever scripting on the part of Shinichi Sekizawa and the keen emotional awareness of director Ishiro Honda. The first confrontation between the eponymous creatures is a literal fight to the death, with an aged adult Mothra battling to protect her unborn offspring to her dying breath. Her legacy – giant twin caterpillars – is the world’s only chance of survival, a younger generation to take on the problems of the old. The final battle is expertly timed on all the production fronts. The baby Mothras earn audience sympathies as the weak against the strong while the plight of a class of grade school students caught in the crossfire ratchets up the suspense.

As should be expected for Toho Company tokusatsu efforts of the time, the special effects production here is second to none. Tsuburarya and company’s puppetry skills had improved considerably since 1961′s Mothra, where the mock-up of the adult monster was just too stiff to be believable. Here the adult Mothra is granted a superior range of motion, from its bobbling head to its six anxiously twitching legs, creating an illusion of life far more convincing than even the 1992 re-imagining Godzilla vs. Mothra could muster. In contrast with the bumbling Godzilla, who destroys more here by accident than on purpose (tripping into Nagoya Castle, getting his tail stuck in Nagoya Tower), Mothra appears elegant, intelligent, and more than worthy as an adversary.

Godzilla himself gets one of my favorite of his series overhauls, his number of toes reduced from four to three on each foot and his face given a solemn expression that some have compared (not unfairly) to that of Droopy the Dog. His brief rampage through Nagoya is by no means as epic as his first tour through Tokyo a decade prior, but the monster is granted impressive scale thanks to the clever optical photography of Yukio Manoda and Yoshiyuki Tokumasa. Much of Godzilla’s screen time is devoted to the foiling of military’s plans to control him, including one operation in which the beast is covered in metal nets and electrocuted (a nod to 20 Million Years to Earth, perhaps? – it would be far from the first time a Harryhausen effects vehicle had informed a Toho production). Another in which Godzilla is bombarded from the air looks to have been legitimately dangerous, as one of the fiery explosions sets the head of the suit ablaze.

Just as responsible for the epic feel of the special effects as the technicians behind them is Akira Ifukube, who composed one of the finest film scores of his career for Mothra vs. Godzilla – his third series outing. The now famous Godzilla theme, a modification of that composed for the earlier King Kong vs. Godzilla, has all the bombast we associate with its later variations, but also a soulful and dirge-like quality that lends it a decidedly ominous edge. Mothra is accompanied by themes both exhilarating and tragic, a combination that suits her place in the film perfectly. Best of all are the vocal pieces composed for the Ito twins (better known as the pop musical act The Peanuts), lyrical and haunting melodies superior even to those composed by Yuji Koseki for 1961′s Mothra.

There really aren’t enough positive things I can say about Mothra vs. Godzilla, the only film in the franchise that I feel has ever improved upon the original. The cast list alone is enough to set a golden-age tokusatsu fan’s mouth to watering – Akira Takarada (GodzillaThe Last War), Yuriko Hoshi (Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster), Hiroshi Koizumi (Dogora the Space MonsterGodzilla Raids Again), Kenji Sahara (RodanKing Kong vs. Godzilla), Jun Tazaki (War of the Gargantuas), Yoshifumi Tajima (Godzilla’s Revenge) and on and on. This is Japanese monster cinema at the very peak of its potential, and a deserved classic of the genre.

I’ve little to complain about with Toho Visual Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Mothra vs. Godzilla from March of 2010 – it’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but its presentation of the film is well in advance of anything that’s come before.

Toho’s restoration staff put significant work into Mothra vs. Godzilla in advance of its HD home video debut, particularly with regards to the color timing (contrast was flatter and there was a distinct red push to the transfer when it first premiered on HD television), and while the results aren’t so stellar as, say, Shochiku Co.’s ace restoration of Harakiri it still makes for an impressive presentation. For me it’s all about the color here – with strong contrast and healthy saturation, Mothra vs. Godzilla‘s tremendous color production design shines here as it never has before on home video. One wishes that detail and textures could have been brought out a bit more, and a fresh scan on better equipment might have culled more from even the vintage ‘Scope photography, but the image here still has plenty of pop in motion. Grain is evident, more so than in the Blu-ray Atragon, but is not overpowering, and use of DVNR, if any, looks to have been kept to a minimum.

It’s worth noting that this is also the cleanest I’ve ever seen Mothra vs. Godzilla look. Not every speck and scratch has been scrubbed from the proceedings – some very minor damage remains – but a lot of restorative work has obviously been performed, particularly where the frequent optical effects are concerned. Mothra vs. Godzilla is presented in 1080p at its native ‘Scope ratio of 2.35:1, and backed by a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.3 Mbps. There are no English audio or subtitling options, but the primary Japanese audio (in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic) sounds very, very good. The 2003 5.1 surround remix is also included, in Dolby TrueHD, and a set of optional Japanese subtitles are provided.

Supplements are stacked, but sadly do not include any material for the film’s American release (those keen on the Frontier Missile sequence will want to keep their domestic copies handy, as there’s nary a sign of it here). An audio commentary (Japanese only, of course) with actor Kenji Sahara, originally produced for the Toho DVD if I’m not mistaken, accompanies the main feature. Video supplements include a Japanese trailer newly transferred in HD, an 8mm short adaptation from the original Mothra (Mothra Attacks Tokyo! モスラ アタック 東京!) in decent SD quality, a narrated picture-book of the same presented in HD, a new half-hour featurette that provides an overview of the monster king’s various looks from 1954 to the present (Godzilla: World of Modelling / ゴジラ 造型の世界, HD), a still gallery of behind-the-scenes photos (HD), and a video gallery of concept sketches for Godzilla’s battles with the film’s three Mothras. Also provided is the shortened 1980 re-release version of Mothra vs. Godzilla, which runs 73 minutes in upscaled HD with Dolby Digital audio. The special features are Japanese only, of course. The disc itself appears to be all-region compatible, and plays just fine in both my Region-A locked Playstation 3 and my Rebion-B secondary deck.

So it’s not English-friendly and the video transfer may not be up to everyone’s expectations (it’s lovely to these eyes in motion, and if the film never looks better on home video I’ll be perfectly pleased), but this is still a substantial package from Toho Visual Entertainment, complete with the strangely glittery slip-sleeve and ace main menu design that marks the rest of their Tokusatsu Blu-ray series. Fans won’t find better, and those undeterred by the language barrier and price (retail is ¥5,985 tax included, or a little over $60) are encouraged to indulge.

Mothra vs. Godzilla is available now from Amazon Japan and other online retailers. Unlike many of the other Amazon sites I receive no kickbacks from Amazon JP for promoting them – I do, however, use the site for all of my current video imports from the country, and highly recommend them.