My friend, who is a massive kaiju film fan, called me up two weeks ago to say that a new Godzilla movie was coming to a local theater. For days after, he would keep hounding me to buy a ticket until I eventually bought one. For him, this movie was like the announcement of a new Star Wars franchise. After nearly 12 years, Toho has returned to the monster movie franchise that rocketed them into global fame. Before the film, my friend could barely contain his excitement. He began to chat with other fans around him about what their favorite films in the series were, what they thought of American reboots, what toys and merchandise they owned, etc. As his excitement for the film rose, mine did as well. It was as if I were at a place of worship celebrating Godzilla’s power and majesty, the epicenter of his devastating impact on pop culture.
Shin Godzilla (initially marketed as Godzilla Resurgence in western markets) is indeed Toho’s first Godzilla outing since 2004’s incredibly insane Godzilla: Final Wars. As with the American Gareth Edwards film from 2014, co-directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi bring Japan’s most famous monster back to his roots, While both films depict Godzilla as a horrible monstrosity hellbent on destruction, the new Toho monster is distinctly an evil national force born from both Japan’s nuclear history and previous war economy during World War II. Shin Godzilla evokes the national response to Japan’s 2011 Touhoku earthquake and tsunami destruction as well as its aftermath, re-imagining the concept of Godzilla as a part of Japan’s more recent cultural history.
Surprisingly, Shin Godzilla has more in common with television shows like In the Thick of It and even The West Wing than, say, Cloverfield. Although the big lizard makes several appearances crushing buildings and disintegrating planes, the main focus of the movie is on operatives of the Japanese government trying to contain the beast. Every character is introduced with their own title card, which is useful since there are at least THIRTY characters. As much as there is one, the main protagonist seems to be Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who heads up the science team tasked with researching and stopping the monster. Yaguchi is a determined young patriot who suffers great losses to ensure Godzilla is dealt with.
Midway through the film, Yaguchi loses one of his political mentors to Godzilla’s destructive attacks and works exhaustedly to ensure Japan isn’t destroyed by the monster or any military action. He’s paired up with Special Envoy for the President of the USA Kayoka Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), a senator’s biracial, bilingual daughter who has her own political agenda to become US President but also feels loyalty to her mother’s homeland. Patterson’s first appearance has her wearing a bomber jacket, symbolizing the merger of America’s war politics with Japanese tradition. It’s actually interesting as an American to witness how other Americans are portrayed in the film. I wonder if this is how foreigners feel when other characters speak a different language in English films because, hilariously, the American actors are incredibly wooden in their short scenes.
The movie is absolutely a post-modern Godzilla film in that in treats the monster as a global threat. The monster is firmly a Japanese problem that is posed to threaten the entire world. There are multiple scenes of other world governments such as the USA and Germany collaborating with the Japanese on the best methods to stop the monster’s destructive attacks on Tokyo and its surrounding neighborhoods, sometimes with humorous results. In particular, the Japanese characters seem justifiably irritated by the slow actions of the American government to involve themselves into the situation. The humor turns serious once the US threatens to drop a nuclear bomb on Tokyo as a final effort to kill Godzilla, spurring Yaguchi and his team to come up with an alternate solution using science.
The film is directed by Hideaki Anno – best known for his work on the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime franchise — and special effects guru Shinji Higuchi. Anno’s style is seen explicitly when looking at Godzilla’s two forms seen throughout the film. His initial appearance could easily be written off as incredibly goofy on first glance, but in action it’s incredibly terrifying. Godzilla starts the film as a massively wide-eyed writhing lungfish with vestigial arms and barely mobile legs. He has gills that spray a seemingly endless amount of blood all over the city. Godzilla is literally born from a churning fountain of blood in the opening sequence, which, if you’ve ever seen Neon Genesis Evangelion, is extremely on-brand for Anno. I’m using the pronoun “he,” but Godzilla is essentially genderless in the film, basically able to reproduce by asexual reproduction, and can “evolve” into a higher form using nuclear energy. Godzilla’s final appearance in the film is practically demonic, somewhat resembling his classic incarnation but with alien-like bug features. Godzilla’s hilariously overpowered attacks raise the stakes much higher for the human characters: At multiple points, Godzilla cuts through an incredible number of planes and skyscrapers with energy beams from his mouth, fins, and tail. There’s an incredible shot that shows Godzilla in silhouette framed by the bright red colors of a burning Tokyo, horrifying imagery of Japan’s personal hell. It helps that the monster is also portrayed through the use of motion capture, giving the beast the unearthly feel of the old films.
My only real gripe with the film is that many of the CGI shots look quite dodgy, particularly early on, which at times makes you feel like you’re watching a Syfy Original Movie. The movie’s final shot is incredibly haunting and, while I won’t spoil it, I think it sets up some potentially interesting sequels. If you’re looking for a film where Godzilla fights monsters for the entire run time, then Shin Godzilla probably isn’t for you, but if you’re looking for a kaiju-film-as-tense-political-thriller, then this is going to completely blow you out of the water.
Shin Godzilla is now playing in limited release.