Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Godzilla on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray Disc

The Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray format has been around since 2016. As the next generation in video disc formats, it has certainly not seen the level of success of DVD or even Blu-ray in terms of adoption or sales. Streaming platforms has posed a challenge for physical media's sales, and there may been many hyperbolic statements that "physical media is dead." Streaming offers conveniences over disc, instant access to content, no need for another device to connect to your TV and no need to store discs. But there are serious drawbacks to relying on streaming services, the need to pay subscription fees every month for continued access, having to subscribe to multiple streaming platforms to watch what you want to watch and the variable quality of the stream depending on the bandwidth available. 

With disc-based media, you own that disc for as long as it lasts. Keep the disc free from scratching and fingerprints and it can last a very long time. However, disc-based media is read only, it cannot be "upgraded" when a new scan of a film is made, so you will have to buy a new disc in order to enjoy the benefits of the latest and greatest restoration. For today's blog article, we are going to examine that question in the context of Godzilla films. For the films which have seen Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray releases, I will attempt to tackle the question of whether you should buy or upgrade to Ultra HD 4K for these films. I will also give links so you can buy the correct discs if you wish.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Ultra HD 4K Discs

Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray Discs bring several advantages over regular Blu-ray Discs. Blu-ray can handle resolutions up to 1920x1080p @ 30fps. Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray goes up to 3840x2160 @ 60Hz. Blu-ray Discs come in 25GB and 50GB capacities, Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays use either 66GB or 100GB discs. Blu-ray usually uses the H.264 codec, Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays use the more efficient H.265/HVEC codec. Most importantly, Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays support High-Dynamic Range (HDR), which can substantially improve the contrast and saturation of the colors being shown. While Dolby Atmos, which permits height-relative positional sound, can be found on both Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray and Blu-rays, it is more commonly found on the 4K discs. Unlike regular Blu-rays, Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray do not have region codes (but there are a few rare 4K discs which refuse to play based on the player's 2K Blu-ray region code).

These benefits come at significant cost. Ultra HD discs are usually significantly more expensive ($30-30) than standard Blu-ray discs ($15-20) at launch and do not drop in prices as quickly. While 4K TVs which support HDR content are available for low cost, lower end TVs are not bright enough to really do justice to HDR. It has often been claimed that a TV needs 1,000 nits of brightness to make HDR stand out but most budget sets only reach 300 nits. Dolby Atmos requires a specialized speaker setup, which may include speakers mounted in the ceiling, to obtain the best effect.

Non-Toho Godzilla Films

The six Godzilla films not made by Toho only require a quick discussion. They have been all released on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray discs and are about as good as you could ever get for those films. Godzilla 2014 was released on Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray in the year of its release. It did not arrive on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray until 2021 but came with substantial improvements to the picture quality over the 2D Blu-ray. The later films have had Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays released alongside their respective Blu-rays. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is the only Monsterverse film without a 3D Blu-ray version. The recently released "Godzilla Kong Monsterverse 5 Film Collection" will save you about $10 on buying the 4Ks individually and have a few extra special features over the standalone releases, if you can stand the cardboard sleeve packaging.

Godzilla 1998 was originally released on Blu-ray in 2009, then re-released as "Mastered in 4K" in 2013 and on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray in 2019. The movie was released again on 4K in 2023 as the "25th Anniversary Edition", which adds Dolby Vision support and is the one to get if you do not already onw it (released in the US & Canada only).

Sony's 1998 Godzilla predated the full use of digital intermediates but the majority of CGI work done on that film tends to look a lot less impressive today than it did in 1998. The first three Monsterverse films were finished on a 2K digital intermediate, which makes their 4K releases upscales, technically-speaking. The two most recent films were finished as 4K digital intermediates, so they do not need to be upscaled to the 4K format. All films use 100GB discs for their main feature except for Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla vs. Kong, which use 66GB discs.

Toho's Godzilla and Tokusatsu Films

Toho has, as of this writing only released Ultra HD Blu-ray 4K discs of Godzilla and its special effects films only for Japan. No other country had seen official 4K releases of the films it has produced but that will change in the near future, which I will discuss further below. Toho has released Blu-ray of almost all their special effects films, but those Blu-rays are very variable in quality. Toho discs only provide Japanese-language options and subtitles. The most affordable solution I have found to "add" subtitles to a Blu-ray or Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray disc without ripping the discs and muxing a subtitle file into the mkv using mkvtoolnix is to use something like a Panasonic DP-UB820 with the region free firmware from RattleByte.

Toho began releasing 4K discs with Shin Godzilla alongside that film's 2K disc. Here are the available films and their release dates and, for Godzilla films, their numerical entry in the Godzilla film franchise, the size of their Ultra HD 4K disc and what HDR format they support (if any):

(31) Shin Godzilla - March 22, 2017, BD66, HDR10
(3) King Kong vs. Godzilla - May 12, 2021, BD66
(1) Godzilla (1954) - October 25, 2023, BD100
(4) Mothra vs. Godzilla - October 25, 2023, BD100
(5) Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster - November 22, 2023, BD100
(6) Invasion of Astro Monster - November 22, 2023, BD100
(9) Destroy all Monsters - November 22, 2023, BD100
(11) Godzilla vs. Hedorah - December 20, 2023, BD100
Submersion of Japan - December 20, 2023, BD100
(17) Godzilla vs. Biollante - December 20, 2023, BD100
(37) Godzilla: Minus One - May 1, 2024, BD100, HDR10 + Dolby Vision

Audio requires its own separate discussion. Film #1, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11 and Submersion were originally released only with mono soundtracks. #3 was originally released with 4-track stereo sound and an alternate mono track and #17 Dolby Stereo. #31 used a 3.1 soundtrack to emulate Perspecta Stereophonic Sound presentations found in many Toho films of the 1950s and 1960 and #37 uses Dolby Atmos. Their discs align in their support. #3 has a multitude of sound options, including a 4.0 track, the mono track and a pair of stereo mixes. #17 has its stereo mix.

Of the films originally released during the past century on this list, Toho has released Blu-rays alongside the 4Ks taken from the same restorations. These Blu-rays are comparatively cheaper than their 4K counterparts, but the difference is less than 1000 yen. You can distinguish the newer Blu-rays from the older Blu-rays in most cases because the newer Blu-rays come in translucent clear cases, the older Blu-rays use the more common translucent blue cases. The Ultra HD 4K discs use black cases and have the 4K Ultra HD logo on the top. King Kong vs. Godzilla is one exception, its 4K-derived Blu-ray comes in the standard blue case but it has "4Kリマスター" (4K Remaster) on the front cover. Submersion of Japan is the other exception, its 4K release comes only in a box set with a Blu-ray. There is no way to obtain the 4K discs of #3, #31 #37 or Submersion at retail outside the expensive box set option.

The single 4K releases (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 17) tend to hover in price around 5,100 yen but do not come with Blu-rays, the rest are only available in pricier box sets but come with Blu-rays of the films. Godzilla: Minus One Minus Color, the black and white edition of Godzilla: Minus One, only comes as a Blu-ray even on the 4K releases.

Extras on these discs are fairly generous and are reflected in that most of them use 100GB Ultra HD 4K Discs. The main feature typically takes 55-60GiB just on its own, which allows for plenty of room for extras. #1 comes with Monster King Godzilla, the 1957 Japanese release of the Americanized "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!" #3, 4, 5, 6 & 9 come with their Toho Champion Festival versions, scanned in 4K. There are several trailers for each release as well, including textless, international and Champion Festival trailers for the films which had Champion Festival releases. #11 and #17 do not disappoint in their respective special features.

One thing to note about the discs without HDR (everything except #31 and #37). These discs are encoded in 4K as SDR BT.2020. BT.2020, better known as Rec. 2020 is a color space format which is typically used with HDR content. Some players and projectors may need to be manually told to use Rec. 709 to show proper colors.

Today, July 9, 2024, Toho is offering a pre-order the Godzilla: Minus One Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray 4-disc set on the official Godzilla store. The discs are the same as were released in Japan except that the Ultra HD disc, the Blu-ray disc of the normal feature and the Blu-ray disc of the Minus One - Minus Color version will have optional English subtitles. The fourth disc is devoted to special features and will not be subtitled. This is unprecedented, Toho has never sold home media directly outside of Japan before. The release has been advertised as limited, which may have been at the behest of Netflix where the film is currently streaming. There is an English dub on the Netflix version which will not be on these discs. The set is scheduled to ship in September.

4K Restorations/Remasters

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster HiVision

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster 4K Remaster

Shin Godzilla used a 2K digital intermediate and Godzilla Minus One a 4K digital intermediate. There was nothing to restore for these films because they were shot digitally and the films were released on physical media within months of their theatrical releases. The older films were shot on 35mm film and many of them have a long and checkered history as theatrical re-releases and on home video.

Toho has not always been kind to the original master prints of the Godzilla films. The camera negative to Godzilla (1954) was lost or destroyed. Toho was still using nitrate for a few years after Hollywood had embraced safety film stock and nitrate is notoriously flammable. King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Invasion of Astro Monster were edited down from their camera negatives when they were re-released for the child-friendly Toho Champion Film Festivals of the 1970s. Later Champion Film Festival releases used dupe elements further away in generations from the negatives.

King Kong vs. Godzilla has had an especially hard time of things on home video. When it was released on VHS tape, laserdisc, DVD and its original Blu-ray, sequences that were cut out of the Champion Festival version looked very poor compared to the rest of the film. At various points Toho found the original trims and scanned everything at 4K to produce a consistent looking version of the film. This version looks amazing compared to what was previously available and compares quite favorably to the Universal's US release of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which did not have these problems.

Mothra vs. Godzilla and Invasion of Astro Monster, while also edited for the Champion Festival re-issues, did not quite have the same issues as King Kong vs. Godzilla. While Toho had to compile King Kong vs. Godzilla from multiple sources, in the case of these two films it used elements from later generations from the camera negative for the home video releases. These prints could reflect what audiences originally say in 1964 and 1965 but their picture quality is noticeably poorer than the Champion Festival versions of these films. For the 4K Remasters it appears that Toho may have taken the bulk of the films from the Champion Festival versions and plugged the missing footage in with the best sources it could find.

Mothra vs. Godzilla HiVision

Mothra vs. Godzilla 4K Remaster

Toho had scanned its Godzilla films back in 2008 in HD, these scans are called HiVisions, referring to the scanning technology used. They were serviceable at the time but as scanning and restoration technology has continually improved over the years, these scans were looking quite old by the time they showed up in the west on the Criterion Showa Set, Media Blasters, Echo Bridge/Lionsgate's Blu-rays. 

Toho began showing its 4K Remasters on Japanese TV stations, notably Nihon Eiga, and occasional limited theatrical showings. Not only have the main features been remastered, but also the Toho Champion Festival versions of films 3, 4, 5, 6 & 9 have been scanned in 4K. They generally look a little more worn than the full movie versions but also have less DNR applied. In addition to the discs released, Godzilla vs. Megalon and The Return of Godzilla have also seen 4K Remasters and shown on Japanese TV, but discs have yet to be announced. Other Toho Tokusatsu films which have been given the 4K Remaster treatment at the time of writing include Rodan, The Mysterians, Mothra, Matango and Frankenstein Conquers the WorldSome of these films may be released in late 2024 in time for Godzilla's official 70th Anniversary (November 3, 1954).

The only way to see these restorations outside of having access to Japanese TV services, which requires a physical presence in that country, is to buy these Toho Ultra HD Blu-ray or their 4K-Restored Blu-rays. #1's 4K Restoration had a US theatrical showing in 2021 and again in 2022. If you want to get a taste for the improvements made, GORIZARD's YouTube channel is the best place to go.

When it comes to those discs, it is clear that Toho's Ultra HD Blu-ray and 4K Remaster Blu-ray discs supersede any releases which have come before them in video quality, whether from Criterion, Kraken, Media Blasters, Echo Bridge/Lionsgate and Toho's own prior releases. For now the U.S. discs have benefits lacking in the Japanese discs. Criterion's Showa Set contains Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and the U.S. version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. The Kraken discs have English dubs lacking on their movies respective Criterion discs. The out-of-print Echo Bridge and Lionsgate releases of Godzilla vs. Biollante have the English dub (taken from the HBO VHS release). The first Media Blasters release of Destroy All Monsters has extra features and the AIP English dub.

Other Japanese Ultra HD 4K Releases of Interest

Toho has also released six of Akira Kurosawa's films on Ultra HD 4K, Stray Dog (66GB), Ikiru (66GB), Seven Samurai (100GB), Yojimbo (66GB), Sanjuro  (66GB), High & Low (100GB) and Kagemusha (100GB). These films were scanned and remastered in 4K and, like the Godzilla films, have accompanying Blu-ray releases of the 4K Remasters with the translucent gray cases. These films have previously been released on Blu-ray using older masters and have the typical translucent blue cases. No HDR support is present. There is speculation of Criterion picking up at least Seven Samurai for a 4K release but no confirmation is available at this time. Criterion has previously distributed all those films on DVD and Blu-ray in the past.

Shin Ultraman, which was brought into the world by the same fine creatives who made Shin Godzilla, also has an Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray release from Toho. It only comes in a box set, again like Shin Godzilla, but is on a 100GB disc and has Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support. As the Ultra HD 4K was released in 2023 compared to 2017's Shin Godzilla, those features would be expected.

Kadokawa released the Gamera Heisei Trilogy on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray in 2021, right around the time when Arrow Video was releasing the Complete Showa and Heisei Films on Blu-ray in the US. Each film in the trilogy is sold separately and includes a Blu-ray disc as well as an Ultra HD 4K disc (66GB), which makes these releases pricier than Toho's Godzilla Ultra HD 4K-only releases. Unlike Toho's Godzilla releases, Kadokawa included HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support with their releases. From the relatively few westerners who have acquired these discs and shared their opinions, those 4K exclusive features offer tangible benefits over the Arrow Blu-rays but unless you have the AV hardware to make the best use out of them, you will not see much benefit from a double dip if you already have the Arrow Heisei Set.

1 comment:

  1. Since seeing Minus 1 been interested in checking out Shin Godzilla but will be looking for standard Blu-ray as it's good enough for my tired old eyes. Interesting article as I'm a big Godzilla fan but not so much of the Monster Verse films.