Written by: Hideaki Anno
Directed by: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
A god incarnate. A city doomed.
Over a decade has passed since Toho produced a Godzilla movie, an unfathomable length of time considering just how synonymous the property is with the studio. This would be like EON forgoing James Bond for any length of time—it’s just unnatural and we should never allow it to happen again. Given these circumstances, it’s easy to imagine the easy route for Shin Godzilla, a film that heralds the return of an icon. With fans poised after waiting for so long, delivering something familiar would be safe enough, especially after the reception of the polarizing Final Wars. However, that hasn’t quite been Toho’s mantra since rebooting the character in 1984, as this property has become less formulaic and more a playground or sounding board for whatever happens to be preoccupying its filmmakers at the time (this was especially true during the bizarre Millennium era, which practically rebooted itself with each new entry).
It’s not surprising, then, to see Shin Godzilla follow in those same footsteps. Yet another reboot, this one wipes the slate completely clean: where previous Toho reboots at least used Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original film as a launching point, this one starts over from scratch, the first of a few decisions that feel alienating, at least initially. Shin Godzilla is not out to coddle with familiarity, and while that approach isn’t always comforting, it’s quite respectable in its willingness to challenge the audience before revealing the unmistakable beating heart of a traditional Godzilla movie.
At first, though, there’s on the vague semblance of one: we start in the sea, where a derelict boat floats aimlessly and mysteriously before something swells from below. Government officials initially wonder if it’s a dormant volcano that’s somehow been awakened, at least until evidence mounts that this disturbance is very much a biological threat. We watch as rooms full of scientists and bureaucrats toil away, chatting their way through a threat assessment while said threat proceeds to emerge from the ocean, quite contrary to the expert’s insistence. When they boldly assert that this creature can’t make landfall, it’s met by a shot of the still unseen menace wreaking havoc on the shore and beyond, a clever visual gag that prompts you to wonder if Shin Godzilla will be primarily concerned with needling ineffectual bureaucracy.
There’s some kind of playfulness to it for sure. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi seem to be aware that its audience would be dying to see Godzilla after such a long absence, so there’s a bit of showmanship to his reveal. We see bits and pieces of his anatomy—mostly his huge tail—as he stomps his way into Tokyo, but he remains largely hidden by tight camera framing. Shin Godzilla proceeds in this coy fashion for a while, with a seemingly endless amount of talking heads attempting in vain to come up with some kind of solution to this unfathomable problem. All the while, the film seems be building to that big, glorious reveal of Godzilla, providing a further glimpse here and there before finally unveiling…a googly-eyed creature that looks more like a turkey than Godzilla. Well then.
If it weren’t already obvious, the reveal of this odd monster—which turns out being one of Godzilla’s various forms here—is a clear mission statement to expect the unexpected. True to the kaiju genre, Shin Godzilla is a strange beast indeed, one that shifts and contorts alongside its titular monster. Its first half is an extremely chatty parade of faces and names that form a seemingly anonymous horde, their individual identifies not nearly as this enormous moment in which they’ve been caught. You wonder just what a Godzilla movie is doing concerning itself with panicked officials spitting out jargon, rumors, and innuendo when a giant monster is ravaging the city. How could these folks be concerned with petty concerns and political maneuvering in the face of a disaster?
Something about that is remarkably on point though, especially for anyone who’s endured the Trump administration for the past six months. Of course this is how it would go down: with backdoor politicking, plotting, and scheming as the masses down below suffer. It’s noteworthy that there’s few street-level POVs in Shin Godzilla since the audience largely remains perched above with government officials and their consultants. Most of the glimpses we are afforded them are from afar, where they’re viewed as possible collateral damage or political roadblocks, another talking point amidst all that endless chatter. Not only is it a bold approach, but it’s also one that feeds into the film’s pursuit of authenticity. In recent years, words like “grounded” and “gritty” have become buzzwords indicating an attempt to strip a property back down to its basic elements in order to make it more “believable,” and Shin Godzilla stretches it to a logical extreme.
No matter how odd (or even inherently contrary) that might seem when applied to a story involving a giant, radioactive lizard, it works here, even if the film is almost ruthlessly obsessed with grounding itself in a credible, modern milieu. The way even the subtitles catalog everything—names, districts, buildings, military equipment—feels right out of the tradition of literary realism, which aimed for authenticity through sheer documentation. Half of Shin Godzilla feels like an attempt to convince you that this is what it would look like if an actual kaiju ever emerged from Tokyo Bay and began wreaking havoc. You’ll find no telepaths, mechanized robots, or other guardian beasts—only the relentless, sinking feeling that all of these efforts—all the talking, scheming, and politicking—will be futile in the face of Godzilla.
Maybe that’s not as fun as some of the more colorful efforts from the height of the Showa and Heisei eras, but it’s no less affecting. I have no real preference when it comes to Godzilla’s depiction—I can watch a film where he’s the antagonist just as easily as I can one where he’s playing Japan’s guardian. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, not to mention peaks and valleys in terms of quality. What’s most important is that it works either way, and Shin Godzilla works big time. For the first time in ages, Godzilla himself feels like a relentless, unstoppable monster, a callous force of nature that needs to be put down.
There’s very little sympathy for this beast, outside of the implication that he’s yet again an avatar of man’s nuclear sins and didn’t exactly ask to exist in the first place (the origin story here has him being formed out of improperly disposed nuclear waste, conjuring the obvious specter of the Fukushima disaster). It needs to be promptly destroyed before it wipes out Tokyo and the entire planet, stakes that are efficiently mapped out by all of the incessant dialogue that continues to roll off characters’ tongues as they discover more about Godzilla. Eventually, though, words become unnecessary, as Godzilla—finally in something approaching his familiar, recognizable form—lays waste to an entire Tokyo district with his signature atomic breath. A far cry from the awe-inspiring spectacle usually associated with this image, this instance hearkens back to the staggering, haunting imagery of the original film.
Both sublime and unsettling, the sequence captures the utter horror and devastation facing Tokyo, finally casting those stakes in sharp relief. What has been a largely distant, objective film suddenly turns its eye towards the sort of humanity you’d come to expect from a Godzilla film. It does so in conjunction with the plot finally coming into focus: with Godzilla rampaging out of control and threatening to wipe out the entire world, the UN gives Japan a 2-week window to evacuate Tokyo, leaving a team of scientists scrambling to devise a solution to stop the creature with a blood coagulant. The plight creates a natural suspense that extends all the way through to the final confrontation with Godzilla, which takes on the feeling of a frustrating boss battle in a video game.
But more than that, this delicate situation finally introduces some emotional stakes, threading them through two terrific performances by Hiroki Hasegawa and Satomi Ishihara. He’s the chief cabinet secretary tasked with researching Godzilla, while she plays an ambition American enjoy to Japan, and the two of them emerge as a couple of sane, perceptive souls amidst the devastation and chaos. Both have political ambitions and carve fierce, indelible presences, but their arc requires both of them to suppress those desires for the great good. In the face of both Godzilla and bureaucratic nonsense and callousness, they manage to cooperate and overcome overwhelming odds, reminding the audience of the awesome sense of triumph these films can carry.
Ultimately, Shin Godzilla feels like a plea for humanity that’s often lost and drowned out by bureaucracy. Even though it spends half its runtime exposing and criticizing mankind’s flaws, it eventually reminds us of what we’re capable of when we lean on reason, compassion, and cooperation. As an American, watching a competent government trust a group of scientists and professionals to do their jobs feels more like a fantasy than the giant monster at this point, so Shin Godzilla is just the burst of optimism I need at this point. It leaves you with the impression that maybe mankind can overcome itself after all in the face of disaster. While the shadow of Fukushima looms large, Shin Godzilla functions as a universal parable for the abject cruelty of systems that lose sight of people as individuals, with a character noting at one point that mankind is worse than Godzilla himself, removing all doubt about the film’s urgent—and all too relevant—moral.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Godzilla if it didn’t also function as a warning of sorts. In the franchise tradition, it leaves some room for ominous doubt: as ever, Godzilla can only be contained and may awaken again should mankind not learn from its folly. He stands as a potent symbol of both our triumphs and tragedies, our accomplishments and our recklessness. While Fukushima is again the obvious reference point, it struck me that this truly is a Godzilla movie for the War on Terror era, as its final image captures the delicate balance of living with such horrors: we persist in spite of them, yet we’re always caught in their shadow. It’s nothing short of brilliant, not to mention completely in line with Honda’s original film.
Shin Godzilla also delivers the other elements you’ve come to expect from this franchise, like top notch effects work (it’s easily Toho’s best digital work in a Godzilla film, though 12 years of improved technology naturally work wonders) and awesome spectacle. Anno and Higuchi arguably have a better grasp of how to shoot this thing than many of their American counterparts, as they pull out for extreme wide shots to capture the immense scale of the military’s showdown with Godzilla, which unfolds in broad daylight to allow for maximum clarity. I can only imagine how impressive this must have looked on the few theater screens it managed to grace last year.
However, I’m even happier to report that this film retains the thoughtfulness that’s so often guided this series. I love the unapologetic monster mashes as much as the next fan (and I’m very happy we have a new American take to provide more along those lines), but there’s obviously a place for the likes of Shin Godzilla, no matter how odd its initial impression may be. Yes, it’s strange, perhaps even a little alienating as it further stretches the perception of what a Godzilla movie is or can be (which, let’s be real, at this point is pretty much anything). I can’t help but appreciate a film that’s willing to challenge both itself and its audience in such a manner instead of catering to expectations (something Gareth Edwards's film did a wonderful job of as well, it should be noted).
Besides, Shin Godzilla ultimately more than earns its franchise stripes—as heralded by the iconic theme music—with its commitment to depicting humanity in all its messy glory. We’re imperfect beings, capable of inflicting so much horror on ourselves and the world around us; however, we’re equally capable of persevering through those flaws via cooperation and compassion, two things the world seems to sorely lack at times. I can’t think of a higher purpose for a Godzilla movie than to remind us the complexities and paradox of being human. In that respect, it’s difficult to consider Shin Godzilla to be anything except a triumphant return. Welcome back, Big G.
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