It’s been three days now since I caught up to Toho Co.’s big-deal series reboot Shin Godzilla. While my thoughts on the film are still running ramshackle through my brain I felt it pertinent to put them to paper none the less, particularly since I’ll be attending a follow-up screening at Minneapolis’ Landmark Lagoon this Saturday. Readers should note that this is meant less as a proper critical assessment than a collection of preliminary observations – I hope to offer more concise and pointed discussion of the film once my mind has settled a bit more on it.
Also, spoilers mean different things to different people, but please be aware that, as this is an article discussing a film, there is a better than off chance that it may spoil something for you along the way. You have been warned.
From its very first frames, Shin Godzilla grounds itself in the greater tradition of Toho special effects cinema in a positively reverential sense. The brief (five, six shots?) opening titles not only echo the visual and auditory iconography of the first Godzilla (arguably Shin Godzilla‘s greatest historical influence), but honor the germinal influence of the King of the Monsters’ entire decades-long career as well. The effort was certainly not lost on the audience at my sold-out screening. When Toho’s modern production mark gave way to the older iteration, it was met with a round of applause.
This reverential sensibility is in evidence throughout the film, which makes plenty of visual and textual allusions to past series entries. The overall structure of the picture bares superficial resemblance to the 1954 original, presenting a series of monster appearances of increasing magnitude that culminates in a devastating attack on the Japanese capital. The emergence of Godzilla’s gargantuan fourth form is an effective distillation of the monster travelogues that marked Toho effects films almost from their very conception, and evokes nostalgia for the same while remaining fresh and viscerally effective in its own right. In a theatrical setting the sense of scale is awesome in the literal sense of the word. My own niggling fears as to whether a full-CGI Godzilla would resonate (I’m an unabashed practical effects apologist) were laid swiftly to rest. In its best moments Shinji HIGUCHI’s effects direction is the most tangibly believable of the entire franchise (essential for a film as grounded in the real present as this), and his Godzilla a terrifying manifestation of our existential fears.
There’s a delicate balancing act at work in Shin Godzilla, with writer and director Hideaki ANNO deftly navigating a cinematic netherworld between the nostalgic and the new, the fantastic and the tangible. The primary dramatic impetus of the film, the efforts of varying levels of the Japanese government to deal with their unprecedented monster crisis, grounds the film in real world process in a way the series hasn’t since its earliest days, though the intractable parliamentary bickering of the immediate Post-War era has been replaced by the lurching bureaucracy of the present. Anno’s screenplay feels like two parts West Wing to one part The Thick of It, a propulsive, fun, and funny procedural drama which offers plenty of pointed satirical criticism of the process itself, but rarely digs for laughs at the expense of its own characters.
The 3/11 disaster informs throughout, both in the raw visuals of Shin Godzilla‘s monster scenes and in its procedural narrative. Early scenes show career politicians faced with an unprecedented crisis, and their ineffectual efforts to contend with it. Deliberations on what should be done, if anything, lag behind the action on the streets with disastrous results, while official statements consistently downplay the disaster to an increasingly wary public. The first act is defined by the inability of top-level government to act with either decision or expedience, and it is through happenstance as opposed to countermeasure that Godzilla’s first appearance is brought to an end.
Counterbalancing the megalithic political establishment, however, is a younger generation of ambitious civil servants, lead among them Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary Rando YAGUCHI (Hiroki HASEGAWA, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?). Yaguchi assembles an ensemble team of outsider talent and ambitious up-and-comers who operate autonomously, seeking to understand and solve the Godzilla crisis as the brute-force efforts of the JSDF (and later, the US military) fail in an increasingly disastrous fashion. The odds are stacked against of course, with Yaguchi navigating not just the bullish threat of American nuclear intervention but a genuine domestic nightmare – the razing and irradiation of the heart of metropolitan Tokyo, and the decapitation of the Japanese government.
In the midst of such dreadful eventualities Anno remains surprisingly optimistic, and makes civil service look pretty cool in the process. The eventual solution hearkens to the golden age of Toho effects fantasy; think The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, or Gorath; not so much in its action as in its political sensibility. Godzilla is not brought to heel by sheer force alone, but through a coordinated international effort at civilian, municipal and military levels. As pure action its one of the more inventive finales in series history, and I’ll not spoil the details of it here.
There has been some criticism, at least in the West (I cannot profess to have read much Japanese coverage of the film), of Shin Godzilla‘s presumed nationalistic tendencies and anti-American sentiments. While I can see where some of these criticisms are coming from (sort of?), I found Anno’s film to be far more nuanced on both fronts than some reviews had led me to think it would be. There is a certain veneration of defense forces in evidence, as there is in almost any effects fantasy, Japanese or otherwise, though this seems largely in line with past franchise entries (Mothra vs. Godzilla; 1964, and the mecha-fixated ’90s installments jumped to mind as I was watching, as did non-franchise films like War of the Gargantuas and Gamera 2: Advent of Legion). Indeed, Shin Godzilla makes a good argument for not being over-confident in military force alone. The JSDF and US campaigns against the monster are dismal failures, the exponential increases in firepower only serving to anger the beast, with Tokyo and its citizens ultimately paying the price.
Shin Godzilla is not so cut and dry with regards to anti-Americanism either. One would be forgiven for finding the few English-language and mixed Japanese / English-language segments of the picture to be a little cumbersome – they are, in a way that such scenes throughout Japanese media can tend to be (it bares reminding that these are not entertainments which are primarily concerned with Western consumption, and that comparable matters in other productions are frequently handled in a similarly awkward fashion). The result is that Anno’s criticisms of American / Japanese relations can appear more ham-handed and one-sided than they ultimately are, by virtue of the presentation’s perceived dramatic limitations.
I was put in the mind of The Mysterians again while watching, not so much with regards to a direct relation of the material but in the sense that one seems to be complimentary of the other. The Mysterians (1957) concerns the formation of a cooperative World Defense Force with the purpose of repelling the foreign threat of an extraterrestrial invasion (the potential political implications of that are a discussion for another day). Though it does so in stark fantasy terms, that film presents an optimistic (if naive) view of international cooperation in a Post-War world, with representatives of both Japan and the United States taking to rocket-powered super-machines to solve the world’s challenges. It’s a trend that would continue through Battle in Outer Space, with its fleet of internationally-collected space fighter pilots doing battle with flying saucers, and find its ultimate expression in Gorath, in which the efforts of every nation on Earth are required to save the planet from a wayward celestial body.
Though its approach is different, focusing more on the process that steps us towards a The Mysterians-esque international coalition than on the coalition itself, the overall sensibility of Shin Godzilla remains the same. The film’s Godzilla could well be argued as a surrogate for any number of global challenges, from nuclear weapons proliferation and the risks of ubiquitous civilian nuclear power to climate change, regional conflicts, and on and on and on, but the course of action remains the same. That the military aspect of Shin Godzilla‘s final monster countermeasure serves as a distraction, and not a solution, is indicative. It is not by brute force that the world’s pressing issues can be resolved, but through the concerted efforts of its people. And though the sensibility may remain the same, Shin Godzilla is not so naive as its predecessors – the fumbling and frustrating realities of current world politics are lost on neither Anno nor his film. But the alternative is a stark and terrifying one, a grim future suggested by Shin Godzilla‘s ambiguous final image.
In case the above did not make such obvious, I found a lot to like in Shin Godzilla, which I would tentatively put towards the top of my list of most-loved genre films. I was evidently not alone. A full two thirds or more of the audience I saw it with remained in the theater for the credits, absorbing and discussing what they had seen to an eclectic selection from Akira IFUKUBE’s mountain of series soundtrack recordings. When Anno’s credit appeared there was a round of applause – a spontaneous moment of appreciation, and well-earned.
How Shin Godzilla will eventually be remembered, both on its own and in relation to the greater history of Toho tokusatsu cinema, is yet to be seen. For the moment it has proven that there is yet life in the character’s old bones, that more than just an internationally iconic trademark and merchandising boon, Godzilla can still have something to say. I’d say that for now that’s more than enough.
On the strength of the film’s performance over the last week Shin Godzilla‘s domestic run has been extended in many theaters. Minneapolis’ own Landmark Lagoon Cinema will have an encore presentation on October 22nd at 12pm. For screenings in your own area, be sure to check the Funimation Films website.