Thoughts on SHIN GODZILLA (Spoilers)
That’s right, kaiju fans, I’ve seen the new Godzilla movie! I was fortunate that Funimation’s limited release of the Japanese Godzilla reboot Shin Gojira — which was originally going to be released in the US as Godzilla: Resurgence but was instead released as Shin Godzilla — happened to be showing at a theater just half an hour’s drive from me this past weekend (actually right by the place I took my car when its odometer broke down a while back). I was also fortunate that they decided to extend the run after I missed my chance last week, and that they included a Saturday matinee showing so I didn’t have to drive in unfamiliar territory after dark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese Godzilla film in the theater before — certainly not uncut and undubbed — so it was good to get the chance. Though I was a bit late getting started and I made the mistake of taking the shortest route rather than the faster but more circuitous freeway routes, so I just barely got into the theater in time for the opening Toho sunburst.
This movie is written and “executive directed,” whatever that is, by Hideaki Anno, creator of the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I’ve been curious about but haven’t actually seen as of this writing. The other director, also the director of visual effects, is Shinji Higuchi, who was the effects director on the superb Gamera trilogy in the ’90s. That’s some impressive talent.
Shin Gojira means “New Godzilla” or “True Godzilla,” with a bit of a wordplay suggesting “Divine Godzilla.” It’s something unprecedented since the 1954 original: A Japanese Godzilla film that isn’t a sequel to that original, but a complete reboot in which Godzilla is something never before encountered. Indeed, that’s arguably unprecedented even if you count the two American attempts. The creature in the 1998 TriStar version was newly evolved, but named in reference to an existing Japanese legend called Gojira, which could conceivably have been the actual creature (and the 2002 GMK did imply that the TriStar movie happened in its continuity); and the Godzilla in the 2014 Legendary Pictures reboot had been secretly known to the military and governments since 1954. Even in the original movie, Gojira was known and worshipped as a sea god by the native tribe of Odo Island.
When I first heard that this, the seventh continuity reboot in Toho’s Godzilla series, would break with the tradition of making every reboot a parallel sequel to the ’54 original, I was disappointed. But as it turns out, this is a film whose story depends on Godzilla being a black swan event, a totally unprecedented problem that catches everyone in authority completely unprepared. It couldn’t really have been told any other way. “New Godzilla” indeed. (And perhaps it explains why the Resurgence title was dropped. It would’ve been false advertising.)
The film opens found-footage style with a Coast Guard investigation of an abandoned boat, the Glory-Maru, which is destroyed by a mysterious steam eruption at the same time an auto tunnel below Tokyo Bay is flooded. Opening with an abandoned boat is no doubt meant to evoke the ill-fated boats that opened both the ’54 original and the ’84 Heisei reboot, but remember it — there’s more to it than that.
The opening minutes are somewhat dry and tedious as the vast government bureaucracy moves from meeting to meeting and clumsily tries to figure out what to do, but it soon begins to become clear that the tediousness is the point, highlighting the inefficiency of a bureaucracy so top-heavy and complacent that it can’t react promptly to a crisis. The lead character, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is a young government official who chafes at the inefficiency and bureaucracy, and once the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he takes charge of a task force of nerds and rebels (by Japanese standards) who operate informally and free of hierarchy, working as a team to figure out the nature of the creature and how to fight it. But they still have to contend with the rest of the government, not to mention the Americans and other world governments, playing politics as usual.
Yaguchi is eventually contacted by Kayoco Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), supposedly a third-generation Japanese-American whose grandmother came to the states after WWII and whose father is a U.S. senator. The odd spelling of her given name (seen printed in her file) is perhaps meant to be an Americanization of “Kayoko.” Unfortunately, Ishihara speaks English with a very heavy Japanese accent, so she’s unconvincing as a U.S. native. (She is gorgeous as hell, though.) Kayoco brings Yaguchi the files of Goro Maki, a missing scientist who owned the Glory-Maru and who shares his name with the protagonists of both 1967’s Son of Godzilla and the ’84 reboot. Maki’s notes confirm that the creature chowed down on nuclear waste dumped on the ocean floor, presumably mutating it. Kayoco also establishes the creature’s name, and it’s odd how it’s explained in the film: The American code name Godzilla is introduced first, explained as a variant of Maki’s coinage Gojira, meaning something like “wrath of God” in the language of Maki’s native Ohdo (or Odo) Island, with the American spelling thus influenced by the word “God.” It seems convoluted, but I suppose it’s necessary to justify the “Godzilla” spelling in a modern context. That spelling is based on a romanization scheme that was preferred in the ’50s (in which it would be Gozila or Godzila) but has since fallen out of use in favor of the scheme that romanizes the same name as Gojira.
When Godzilla first appears, it seems oddly comical, a snake-headed, fish-eyed juvenile form that galumphs clumsily on all fours, ill-suited to movement on land. But it quickly gets less comical as we see the sheer size of it and the destruction it wreaks, and it soon visibly mutates into a second, upright form better adapted to land. As with prior reboots, this one has evolved the concept of Godzilla, adding something new to the mythos. Originally, Godzilla was just a surviving dinosaur species turned radioactive by nuclear testing. The Heisei series retconned him into a therapod dinosaur mutated to giant size by radiation. The Millennium series introduced his super-healing ability, allowing Godzilla to regenerate from near-total destruction if any part of him remained (an idea cribbed from Toho’s ’60s Frankenstein films). Now, Godzilla’s gained the ability to evolve into new forms at will — reminiscent of Iris in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, although it also kind of makes Godzilla a Pokemon now, or a Digimon. As with those franchises, it seems the sort of thing designed to let them sell lots of Godzilla toys by giving him various different forms.
Another idea this film shares with the Gamera trilogy: The Self-Defense Force is initially hampered in fighting the kaiju because the treaty only allows it to use force if fired upon first by an aggressor. They figure out they can make an exception for “pest control,” so the helicopters are sent in, but when it turns out a few civilians remain in the area, the Prime Minister chokes and refuses to give the fire order, allowing the creature to retreat to the sea.
Godzilla’s eventual mature form is more than twice its previous size (and taller than any previous Godzilla, in a bit of one-upmanship on Legendary Pictures, the previous record-holder), and it heads for Tokyo for unclear reasons (except, well, where else would Godzilla go?). Yaguchi’s team and the SDF have had time to organize a systematic attack, but none of their weapons leave a scratch, and it takes some American stealth bombers dropping bunker-buster bombs to pierce Goji’s hide. But that injury just prompts its next mutation, and it unleashes a devastating fire breath that then becomes an even more devastating atomic ray, and that’s just the start of a sequence of truly massive devastation on a scale beyond what we’ve ever seen in a Godzilla film, destroying three whole wards of Tokyo in moments and killing the Prime Minister and much of the government. Its energies depleted, Godzilla then freezes in place to recharge.
Yaguchi and half his team manage to survive (including all the speaking characters therein) and try to pick up the pieces. They have a plan: They’ve figured out that Godzilla’s nuclear reactor is blood-cooled, and they intend to use a coagulant to shut down his metabolism and force a “scram” (i.e. an emergency reactor shutdown). But the U.S. plans to nuke Godzilla — and Tokyo — to prevent it from evolving into a form that can reproduce and spread worldwide. Naturally, the prospect of America nuking a third Japanese city evokes a lot of pain and soul-searching from the characters. Yaguchi’s team has to race against time and pull every official and back-channel string they can to get the time to finish the coagulant, and the appointed replacement Prime Minister, who initially seemed like a flake, rises to the occasion and helps them get the time they need. Along the way, they figure out — this is a little unclear — that Goro Maki was somehow responsible for unleashing and possibly even creating Godzilla, perhaps as vengeance on Japan for his wife’s death, or perhaps a test of humanity’s worth to survive. If they are saying that Godzilla was a genetically engineered organism, it would be another parallel with the Gamera trilogy, and the first time that idea has ever been applied to Godzilla, although there was an unmade 1994 American remake that would’ve explained Godzilla as the creation of aliens.
The final battle with Godzilla is actually rather anticlimactic, since it’s basically just a matter of pinning Godzilla down and spraying the coagulant into its mouth, and the plan succeeds a bit too easily. Kayoco reminds Yaguchi that the nuclear countdown is only on hold as long as Godzilla remains dormant. But there’s a final shot showing… well, I’m not quite sure what it shows, but it may be a hint that this is not the only Godzilla out there.
Even though this is a total reboot, the film has a lot of references to the history of the franchise. I’ve mentioned many of them already. The score, by Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu, makes use of a number of Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla motifs and military marches at appropriate points, while also basing a number of original cues on a 6-note ostinato prominent in his Evangelion scores. (Some sources say he reused the actual cue from NGE, but I listened to the tracks on YouTube and they have distinct melodies, sharing only the ostinato underneath.)
Shin Godzilla is certainly the most serious, dark, and allegorical Godzilla film since at least GMK. It’s also very much a rumination on the state of Japan as a society, perhaps because it’s in some ways a reaction to the new American Godzilla franchise. Although using Godzilla as a metaphor for the contemporary zeitgeist of Japan itself is something done by many of the most effective Godzilla films — and some of the less effective ones. The original film was a protest of American nuclear testing and its unconsidered impact on Japan, and a rumination on the ethics of weapons of mass destruction from the perspective of a nation still healing the wounds from their recent use. The 1984 reboot took a critical look at the US-Soviet Cold War from the perspective of one of the smaller nations caught in the middle, with Japan’s history giving it a unique moral authority to take a stand against the superpowers’ nuclear gameplaying. The problematical Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a jingoistic celebration of Japan’s Imperial history and its rise as an economic superpower in the ’80s and ’90s. Conversely, GMK a decade later was an indictment of that same Imperial history and the way the modern generation had chosen to forget the nation’s past crimes and horrors. Following those precedents, Shin Godzilla is a commentary on the state of Japan in the post-Fukushima era, an expression of frustration at the governmental bloat and inefficiency that hampers the protection of the public against disasters, and at the way Japan’s political and military autonomy is still restricted even generations after WWII, a period of penance and dependence that seems like it may never end. While GMK criticized the Japanese for forgetting the lessons of their forebears’ misdeeds, this film makes the counterargument that the current generation doesn’t deserve to keep being punished for them, not if it inhibits Japan’s ability to defend itself and stand as an independent nation rather than a client state. Still, it’s more nuanced than the rah-rah pro-imperialist politics of GvKG, making a case for Japan as an equal partner among cooperating nations.
Still, as somber as it gets, I feel there’s a certain superficiality to it, due to its unrelenting focus on government officials. Aside from the early found-footage scenes, there’s little sense of ordinary people’s reactions to the disaster. The action scenes are mostly quite bloodless, with the population largely or fully evacuated before the battles, and with little in the way of onscreen death or the loss of established characters other than the first Prime Minister. This is actually pretty typical for Godzilla films, but it kind of belies the publicity saying that this was going back to the spirit of the original film, because that film focused heavily on the human cost, the terror of the victims and the suffering of the survivors. That was what made it so powerful and poignant. Similarly with the Shibuya sequence in Gamera 3 — what made it horrifying was not all the buildings the kaiju destroyed, but the focus on all the civilians fleeing and dying underfoot. The Tokyo cataclysm here is visually and stylistically potent, beautifully made and striking, but a bit sterile in contrast, because it’s a mostly empty city being destroyed and there’s little sense of a human cost aside from the loss of the PM. Other Godzilla films may rarely feature as much onscreen death as the original, but there are usually at least some civilian characters to offer a more street-level perspective.
Still, from a stylistic standpoint, it’s a well-made and effective film. The VFX, done mostly with CGI, are quite good overall, although the “baby” Godzilla doesn’t look quite as solid and real as the later models. The music is used fairly deftly; at first, in the dry, documentary-like opening minutes, there is no music, but a score finally begins to emerge once the proto-Godzilla makes landfall, and the Ifukube themes kick in once the mature creature appears. The editing is quite fast-paced, sometimes maybe a bit too much so, but it helps keep the energy up even in all the scenes of meetings and dialogue. There are captions everywhere, identifying characters by name and government title (including several captions for Yaguchi as he’s promoted to more and more responsibility) and the various offices and task forces and even military vehicles, and it’s hard to pay attention to the subtitle translations of both dialogue and captions at the same time. I’m glad I was sitting toward the back of the theater so that I could at least fit both sets of captions into my field of view. Still, watching this movie with subtitles might be more rewarding on home video with freeze-frame capability.
All in all, I’d call it one of the better Godzilla movies. I think the film it most reminds me of is the ’84 reboot — also a rumination on Japan’s relationship with nuclear superpowers, and the last time that a Japanese Godzilla film was strictly about Godzilla vs. humanity, with no other monsters or giant mechas involved. It does a good job feeling grounded and naturalistic, even if it is a bit sterile. It’s certainly raised the effects game to a new level, perhaps even enough to compete with Legendary’s efforts. Apparently it’s been quite a critical and box-office success, the best-attended Godzilla theatrical release in Japan in 50 years, and its limited US run has done better than expected. I’d say that means the prospects of a sequel are pretty good, although the next announced Godzilla project from Japan is, surprisingly, a CGI anime film slated for 2017. If there is a sequel in the Shin continuity, hopefully we’ll get a bit more explanation of Goro Maki’s role in unleashing Godzilla. I’m sure we’ll get further mutations of Godzilla as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rival monster or two. It’d be nice to have an ongoing continuity again, although next time I’d like to see the perspective broaden beyond the government.
And I’m probably not the only one wondering if there’s a way to do a Shin Godzilla vs. Legendary Godzilla crossover…