Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Brief History of Godzilla on Home Media

Before home video tape and disc formats was available, the only way to see a motion picture was in the theater during its first run or through a reissue.  Later, when television became available films would be available for broadcast but TVs were expensive in the 1950s, color TV was expensive until the mid 1960s, and studios typically did not make their prestigious library titles available at first (with occasional exceptions) because they still viewed themselves in competition with television.

Godzilla movies have been released on home video for a very long time, longer than many people may realize.  With the release of the Criterion Showa set on Blu-ray, we will finally have had a release of every Godzilla film on HD disc.  Here in this blog article I will give a brief overview of the franchise's release history on all home video formats, both popular and obscure.  I am concentrating on what was available in the English-language market, with which is what I am the most familiar.


8mm (1932) and Super 8mm (1965)

Prior to the introduction of consumer-affordable and widespread adoption of video tape formats, films could still be viewed at home via a film projector.  Cameras capable of shooting film rolls were very popular in middle class homes, and handheld cameras could accept 8mm and 16mm film.  9.5mm was popular in Europe and almost as good as 16mm.  Early home movies would be shot on these formats, and if a family could afford the film stock and the lab processing fees, it could have a pretty decent color reproduction.  Most home movies using amateur gauges (professional was 35mm and above) were silent, consumer affordable cameras did not usually record synchronous sound.















Camera stores also would rent out film reels and there were mail order catalogs like Blackhawk Films were you could order whole films, usually silent films or public domain sound films on 8mm and 16mm.  Castle Films had access to the Universal Studios film library and would release material from it.

In the 1960s, the introduction of the Super 8mm format coincided with film studios approving digest releases of their films to that format in greater quantities than had been previously made available.  These films would be "digest versions", usually 200 feet of film running at 8 minutes showing the highlights of a film.  Ken Films was a very prolific distributor from a variety of companies, but their releases were often in black and white and silent, using titles overlaid on the bottom of the film to explain what was going on.

Ken Films released Godzilla vs. the Thing as a silent 200' B&W digest, which ran about 8 minutes.  It released two versions of Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster.  The first release had the words "Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster, Monster of all Monsters" on the film box.  It is commonly referred to as "Ghidrah Monster" The second has the words "Ghidrah the three headed monster battles Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan for the world!" on the film box.  This is known as "Ghidrah Battles".  Each version of Ghidrah took from different parts of the film and could be edited together into a more cohesive whole.  For these films, Ken Films did not bother to transfer the widescreen Tohoscope image to the 4:3 frame, so an anamorphic lens could be fitted to the projector to show a more appropriate aspect ratio.  Ken Films advertised most of its films in 8mm and Super 8mm versions, and boxes should have a Super 8mm sticker on them.  They advertised cheaper 50' versions of most of their releases as well.














They also released Rodan and Varan the Unbelievable! in the 200'/B&W/silent format. Frankenstein Conquers the World got a B&W with sound release.  For Destroy All Monsters they released a 200' color version with sound as well as the standard silent version.  These color prints used remarkably unstable dyes and are likely to be faded to red today.  The color Destroy all Monsters release was featured as an extra on the 2011 Destroy All Monsters Blu-ray from Media Blasters.  The much more common 2014 Destroy All Monsters Blu-ray re-release lacks any special features.

VHS (1976) & Betamax (1975)


VHS was the true beginning of the home video revolution.  At first, VHS VCRs were used mainly for recording TV shows and films broadcast on TV to blank videocassettes.  Then when home video rental businesses became profitable, you would rent a movie, watch it and then return it to the store.  Early VHS releases were rather expensive, sometimes $80 to purchase a single film, so building a home movie library of pre-recorded tapes was not especially common.  Later the prices went down and buying tapes for $10 a film lead to people being able to acquire large number of films for their own broadcasting pleasure.


In the United States, the first Godzilla film known to be released on VHS was Godzilla, King of the Monsters! by Vestron Video in 1983.  Paramount would release the films that Henry Saperstein/UPA had rights to, Rodan, Godzilla vs The Thing, Monster Zero, War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla's Revenge, Terror of Mechagodzilla .  A smattering of other companies would pick up other films, but it was not until the release of Destroy All Monsters in 1998 and the Heisei films would the complete Godzilla series be available for the first time on home video.

In the VHS days, the only version of the film you could get would the American versions.  Typically these would be the original theatrical or TV versions, often with the original distributors logos removed and end title cards changed.  Destroy All Monsters was the exception, it was never released on VHS as AIP released it in theaters, it was released only in its Toho-constructed "International Version" and it was the last Showa Godzilla film to be released outside of Japan (in 1998 alongside the DVD).  Original Japanese-dialog releases had to wait until DVD was firmly established.  Except for a very few releases by Scimitar in 1998, all widescreen films would be pan and scan in the VHS era.

The artwork and the descriptions on the cassette boxes were often aimed at children.  Godzilla was almost invariably depicted with green skin even though his hues were charcoal gray until Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.  Often the depiction of Godzilla would not match the film, seeing the Return of Godzilla suit was very, very common on VHS films which were not Godzilla 1985.


Releases of non Godzilla sci-fi films were spotty in the VHS days, and many of them were likely unauthorized.  Mothra was frequently released, and certain versions like the American version of Varan the Unbelievable were only available on VHS.  Godzilla vs. Megalon was thought to be in the public domain in those days and a vast number of unauthorized versions were released on VHS.

VHS could record at three speeds, SP (Standard Play), LP (Long Play) and SLP or EP (Super Long Play/Extended Play).  SP gave the best quality but took up the greatest length of tape.  Typically cassettes could contain enough tape for two hours of playback time at the SP speed.  LP gave four hours and SLP six.  VHS releases of the Godzilla films were not always released at the SP speed, but the more reputable distributors would at least state the play speed on the box.

For Beta tapes, all I have been able to find outside of Japan is a release of Godzilla 1985 and a bootleg of Godzilla vs. Megalon and one or two releases in Europe.  Within Japan Betamax was more popular and Toho seems to have ported most of its Godzilla and sci-fi films to that format in the mid-1980s. Toho released all its films on VHS up to and including Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004.



There do not appear to be any releases for the Video 2000 standard, which was only released in PAL countries in Europe and in South America, or in the S-VHS format or the D-VHS HD format marketed as "D-Theater".

LaserDisc (1978)


LaserDisc was understood as the premium home movie format until the emergence of DVD.  The discs were the size of vinyl audio records and the playing surface could be scratched, which meant that the format was not quite as robust as a videocassette cartridge.  The discs were expensive and the players much more expensive than a VHS deck.  With no ability to record to LaserDisc, the format was never going to supplant VHS.

LaserDiscs have a tendency to exhibit bit rot over time, leading to artifacts in the picture and crackles in the audio. Because LaserDisc uses analog audio and video, errors may not necessarily lead to an unplayable disc, unlike DVD.   However, a well-manufactured and treated LaserDisc could be replayed a theoretical infinite number of times, whereas every play of a VHS tape creates wear on the tape itself.  LaserDiscs can benefit much, much more from S-Video connections than VHS tapes, where composite video is as good as it gets.


LaserDiscs introduced many of the features we take for granted today in DVDs and Blu-rays, commentary/alternative audio tracks, chapter stops, true freeze-frame, slow motion, Dolby Digital.  Early LaserDiscs pretty much always pan and scanned theatrical widescreen movies, but by the 1990s there were letterboxed versions available for many releases.  While VHS has letterboxed films, the increased horizontal resolution of LaserDisc over VHS (425 TVL vs. 240 TVL) made the image much easier to watch.  A LaserDisc can only hold about one hour of video on a side whereas a VHS cassette in the SP mode can hold two, so most movies came on double-sided discs.  A long movie may require two discs.


The only Godzilla films released on LaserDisc outside of Japan were the Paramount "Gateway Collection" from 1994-95, Godzilla King of the Monsters and Rodan in early releases from Vestron Video in 1983 and Godzilla 1985.  In  Japan LaserDisc was much more popular and Toho released a sizeable amount of its film library on that format, including Godzilla and most of its other sci-fi films.

CED (1981)
















Capacitive Electronic Disc was an early video format developed by RCA which competed with LaserDisc for dominance of the high-end video player market.  It used vinyl discs housed in protective caddies with a stylus inside the machine to read the change in capacitance across the disc.  The discs could be two-sided with each side of the disc storing up to sixty minutes of video.  A film longer than two hours would need a second disc.  CED was not successful against LaserDisc (which was pricier but offered better picture quality and could manage features like audio commentaries)

Only two films were released on this format, Godzilla King of the Monsters! and Godzilla 1985.  Vestron Video, which released Godzilla King of the Monsters! also released Rodan as well on the format.

VHD (1983)


Video High Density used a similar method of data storage to CED but the discs were somewhat smaller and the format offered greater interactivity with chapter selections.  VHD never was released outside of Japan, but within Japan offered greater competition to LaserDisc than CED did outside of Japan.


The LaserDisc database has VHD entries for Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs Godzilla, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,  Invasion of Astro-Monster, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep,  Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Godzilla (1984).  I think it is highly likely that the "gaps" in the series were also released.  Other Toho sci-fi films confirmed to be released on the format are Rodan, The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, Mothra, Gorath, Atragon, War of the Gargantuas, King Kong Escapes, Submersion of Japan & Sayonara Jupiter.  Toho Video released its own discs and seemed to embrace the format enthusiastically from 1985-87 and then its interest turned solely to LaserDisc.

DVD (1996)


DVD was a surprisingly early recipient of Godzilla films.  Scimitar began releasing decent editions (widescreen) of "the Saperstein/UPA catalog" as early as 1998.  It released Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs. The Thing, [Godzilla vs.] Monster Zero, Godzilla's Revenge and Terror of Mechagodzilla.  The first and last film weren't much better than their VHS releases, ToMG being released in Pan & Scan, but the middle three films were released in widescreen for the first time on home video.  These transfers are unique in that they appear to be from original prints, not reconstructions using Japanese prints as has everything since.  Unfortunately they are non-anamorphic and may have audio sync issues.


1998 was the "big year" for Godzilla home media releases because of the Sony/Tri-star release of the American Godzilla film that year.  For the first time, the Heisei films after Biollante offically made their stateside debut.  Sony's Godzilla enthusiasm extended for quite a long time, it released Godzilla 2000 in theaters with only minor alterations and a decent dub, the Millenium films to DVD with less lag time than the Heisei films and several of the Showa films with surprisingly good transfers for the time and Japanese audio for the first time.


Unfortunately the Sony DVDs of the Heisei films, except for Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, were released very early in the DVD format and are pan and scan (Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah/Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) and do not have original Japanese audio.  Sony would do better with the five Showa films it could release, Godzilla vs. Sea Monster, Son of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Smog Monster, Gigan and Mechagodzilla looked better than they ever had and were in widescreen and had Japanese language options.  Unfortunately, the old Titra/Titan Studios dubs that were on the first three films in the past had been replaced with the International Version dubs, which many fans found either unfamiliar or inferior.


The Saperstein/UPA catalog, with a pair of additions in Godzilla Raids Again and Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, were finally released (and in some cases re-released) by Classic Media in 2006 with Japanese and U.S. versions for each film in the package.  The prior releases of this catalog in 2002 by Classic Media were pathetic.  The 2006 releases were the first time that these films appeared with commentaries and extras that were worth something.  The packaging was also very high quality for the time.  They each contained the Japanese and U.S. releases, but the U.S. releases were generally reconstructed from the Japanese releases (and left something to be desired) except for Godzilla vs. The Thing, which was cropped to 1.78:1.

Godzilla 1985 and Godzilla vs. Biollante was MIA on DVD until they were releases simultaneously on Blu-ray and DVD in 2016 (in the The Return of Godzilla "International Version") and 2012, respectively.

Media Blasters (as Tokyo Shock) and Discotek released many of the non-Toho sci-fi films, many to home video officially for the first time outside of Japan.  The Mysterians, Varan, Matango, Atragon, Dogora, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Latitutde Zero, Space Amoeba, The War in Space and Sayonara Jupiter all saw releases.  Sony picked up some slack with the Mothra trilogy and a nice 3-in-1 release of Mothra, the H-Man and Battle in Outer Space.

Blu-ray (2006)


No Godzilla films appear to have been released on the HD-DVD format, which competed with Blu-ray for dominance from 2006-2008.  Sony's held much of the Godzilla distribution rights at this time and had developed and was exclusively committed to Blu-ray.  Its PlayStation 3 console always came with a Blu-ray player.  The smaller distributors all took a wait-and-see approach to HD disc.  When Blu-ray won the format war Godzilla films began to be released on the platform.


As you might expect, things were slow for the first several years of the HD format.  Sony's Godzilla and Criterion's release of Godzilla/Godzilla King of the Monsters came early.  Media Blasters barely released Destroy All Monsters in 2011 and had to delay Godzilla vs. Megalon for years due to issues it caused with Toho.  Classic Media stepped its toe into the waters early with a release of the Japanese Godzilla, but the market did not reward its half-hearted effort sufficiently for it to release the remainder of its catalog.  Godzilla vs. Biollante finally got a release on disc in 2012.  With the release of the Legendary Godzilla film in 2014, the floodgates of Blu-ray releases were opened.  Sony released its back catalog, Kraken released Sea Monster, Smog Monster and Gigan.  While disappointing to fans of the Raymond Burr Godzilla 1985, that film finally got a release in its International Version, The Return of Godzilla in 2016.


Toho came to the Godzilla series on HD with some trepidation with its domestic releases.  In 2009-2010 it released all the Heisei and Millenium films, but of the Showa era only certain films were released.  Then in 2014 it re-released what it had previously released and completed the Showa series and re-released the series again in 2019 at reduced cost.  Most of the classic non-Godzilla fantasy and sci-films from the Showa era have been released as well.

When Universal/Legendary Pictures released its 2014 Godzilla movie on Blu-ray, the consensus was that the image was too dark and washed out.  The 3-D version is noticeably more vibrant and brighter.  If for no other reason the 3-D version had to be brighter to combat the contrast reducing polarized or shutter glasses.

With the Criterion Showa set, all films in the Godzilla series have been released on Blu-ray, and except for Biollante, all are in print and can be purchased at reasonable prices at this time of writing.

Non-Godzilla films on HD have been few.  We have seen overseas releases of Mothra, Battle in Outer Space and Toho's Vampire Trilogy.  Universal released King Kong Escapes alongside King Kong vs. Godzilla, but both were the U.S. versions.

A few observations should be made of the Criterion Showa set.  This set contains the first fifteen Godzilla films.  It also contains the Americanization of Godzilla, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! It also contains the Americanization of King Kong vs. Godzilla as well as the Japanese release as an Extra (with forced subtitles).  English language options are not included for Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs Godzilla, Godzilla's Revenge but those films never had an International Dub.  They were last released in English by Classic Media on DVD in 2006.  Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, Godzilla vs. Hedorah or Godzilla vs. Gigan also are only in Japanese in this set, but those films did have an International Dub.  If you want them in English on HD, you will have to find or keep your Kraken releases (which arguably have better video, being based on the Sony DVD releases).  If you want the AIP dub (which is generally considered superior to the International dub) of Smog Monster, it was only released on VHS and Laserdisc.


In terms of the quality of the video presentation, these films could have objectively looked much better than what was presented on these discs.  Except for the first film, Criterion had to make use of scans of these films Toho made back in 2007 on a Hi-Vision machine.  This technology was not really state of the art back in 2007, so the films look rather dull and soft compared to what can be achieved with today's scanning technology.  Toho's Blu-rays of these films are all sourced from these masters.  Apparently Criterion was also not permitted to fix splices or other flaws which it typically does for other films.

Mothra vs. Godzilla and Invasion of Astro-Monster were scanned from dupes because Toho edited the original negatives for kid-friendlier runtimes which it showed during the Champion Film Festivals from 1969-78.  They look especially soft and poor contrast compared to Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep.  The Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla was also edited from its negative for the Championship Festival, but Toho did not completely restore the missing footage with quality film sources until 2016.  The result is that about 90-seconds of the film will appear in sub-Laserdisc quality compared to the rest of the film.  Toho has aired the restored version of King Kong vs. Godzilla and a 4K scan of the original Godzilla and perhaps other more recently-restored Godzilla films on Japanese TV.

4K Ultra HD (2016)















Only three titles have been released to date, Sony's Godzilla, Legendary's Godzilla King of the Monsters and in Japan, Shin Godzilla (no English subtitles).  4K Ultra HD discs have no region locking mechanisms, but there is no guarantee that your preferred language will be included on a disc or your film will have easily removable subtitles.  I think the next time we will see serious movement in this category will be in 2021 when Godzilla vs. Kong is released.  That may give us a Godzilla (2014) 4K release.


Photo Credits

I would not have been able to give this blog post much in the way visual flair without the efforts of many other people to scan and preserve packaging.  The 8mm film reel boxes come from here.  The VHS box art came from Toho Kingdom's great series of articles, located here.  LaserDisc, VHD and CED images came from the LaserDisc Database.  For DVD, Blu-ray and Ultra HD 4K discs, I took those images from Amazon.

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